Mayor Bell off on new quest to attract international investors

Strategy is to attract international funding

5/18/2011
BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Read the eBlade Special Section on Mayor Bell's latest trip to China

Mayor Mike Bell, shown with Chinese investor Yuan Xiaohona, says Toledo is open for business.
Mayor Mike Bell, shown with Chinese investor Yuan Xiaohona, says Toledo is open for business.

Mayor Mike Bell leaves Wednesday for his second trip to China and his goal remains the same as his visit last year to the People's Republic -- simply to get investors looking at Toledo.

The strategy to attract international money to the area, which has become an underlying theme of his administration, has worked thus far, the mayor said.

"If it is anything like the first time that I went, it will be meeting after meeting after meeting, and during those, we will be establishing relationships that we hope to nurture, and that will at least interest people in taking a look at Toledo or northwest Ohio," Mr. Bell said. "I am the marketing point of the trip, and if [a deal] ends up in the private sector that is fine … because private-sector companies in the city of Toledo area support our tax base. So when they are successful, we are successful."

Chinese investment has become a key part of the mayor's efforts, but he is not solely concentrating on that country, he said.

"The understanding is that we are attempting to be very open for business for international investors, and that we are a city that has the qualities they are looking for and to invest in and may even want to live in," the mayor said. "A lot are following through, they are just not doing it on the governmental side of things. It is in the private sector."

Mr. Bell and deputy mayors Steve Herwat and Tom Crothers met Monday night for dinner with Consul-General of Japan Kuninori Matsuda in Detroit.

"He requested the meeting four or five weeks ago and came here to explain that, based on what they had been reading, and understanding what we are trying to do, they would like to be a part of that effort," Mr. Bell said. "We are trying to find out how we can leverage Toledo, Ohio, to be part of their formula for businesses in future. … He brought a map and showed us that they had only invested in the past for some reason in the three Cs."

The three Cs are Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

Mr. Bell said that since his trip in September, about 10 delegations of Chinese investors have visited Toledo, including Wu Kin Hung and Yuan Xiaohona -- whose company, Dashing Pacific Group Ltd., purchased The Docks restaurant complex for $2.15 million

The mayor's strongest connection to the Chinese investors is Scott Prephan, a Perrysburg real estate broker and co-owner of a Chinese firm that services industrial machinery, and his associate Simon Guo, a Chinese translator and deal broker.

"Simon and Scott typically line up various business people," Mr. Bell said about his schedule in China and whom he plans to meet with. "It could be someone who has a major furniture store to someone who has a major restaurant, or someone else who has some other major industry, to sit down and see if Toledo and northwest Ohio might be a fit for them."

The mayor said Chinese investors are eager to invest in the United States.

He referred to a study by the Asia Society in New York and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington that said China could invest $2 trillion in foreign direct investment worldwide over the next decade. The People's Republic of China's overseas direct investments were $59 billion in 2010 but could increase to $100 billion to $200 billion a year, the study said.

"So a lot of this actually is a focus of the government reaching out and being able to do something with its business people," Mr. Bell said before leaving the country.

In addition to the mayor and Jen Sorgenfrei, the city's public information officer, 13 businessmen will participate in the nine-day trip. Also going will be Mr. Bell's parents, Norman and Ora Bell.

They were invited by Jimmy Wu, Mr. Wu's son, to attend his wedding in Shenzhen, the delegation's first stop after landing in Hong Kong. Mr. Bell also will attend and give brief remarks at the wedding.


The mayor is paying for his parents' travel expenses to China and their costs there.

"My key concern is getting my parents over there and then I can concentrate on the business people," Mr. Bell quipped.

The cost for Mr. Bell's travel, lodging, and food is being paid for by the businessmen in the delegation; Ms. Sorgenfrei's expenses will be paid for by the city.

Also going to China Wednesday are Mr. Prephan and Dean Monske, chief executive of the Regional Growth Partnership. Mr. Bell did not have a list of other delegation members.

The delegation is to travel to Shenzhen, Beijing, Qinhuangdao, Hangzhou, and Nantong.

The RGP plans to open offices in Shenzhen on Friday and in Beijing on Monday.

"We have entered the implementation phase of a very simple business model designed to foster relationships between China and U.S. companies for such things as real estate investments, joint ventures, and those companies looking to diversify and expand their products and services including manufacturing into foreign markets," Mr. Monske said.

Like the mayor, Mr. Monske said the value of going to China is all about building relationships -- a key component for business ventures there.

"We have three business forums set up while we are there," he said. "First and foremost, the goal is to build relationships and tell the story of the region -- the assets we have here."

The mayor is hoping to improve relations with officials in Qinhuangdao, Toledo's sister city for more than two decades and its only sister city in China.

In that time, a Toledo mayor has never visited the city, where the Great Wall begins.

During his China trip last year, Liu Caijia, vice director of Qinhuangdao's foreign-affairs office, met the mayor in Beijing. Like Toledo, Qinhuangdao is a major port city. It is 180 miles east of Beijing, on the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea.

Mr. Bell said he would like to see the Great Wall of China -- something he didn't have time to do during his trip in September. In fact, he doesn't expect much free time.

"One of the key things was to go to the Great Wall, but we never made it to the Great Wall because our schedules got so packed with people over there who wanted to talk with us, find out about Toledo, and wanted to talk about the business possibilities," Mr. Bell said. "So what we did and we will probably do again this time, is we canceled the stuff that might have been fun to do, so we could go do the stuff that we were there to do, which is business for the city and northwest Ohio."

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.