Bell, RGP Chief Monske reflect on China relations
By Kevin Milliken, Special to La Prensa
August 5, 2011: Toledo’s mayor and the head of a private economic development agency emphasized the importance of the Glass City “going global” in order to secure the economic investment necessary to create local jobs. China has been the biggest focus in that effort over the past year, even though Toledo city leaders also have played host to the Mexican Consulate on occasion.
“We should have been doing this 15, 20 years ago,” said Toledo Mayor Mike Bell. “With the opportunities that are present over there, I realized we needed to move quickly if we were to move forward as the city of Toledo.”
Regional Growth Partnership President/CEO Dean Monske stated that educating Chinese business leaders on the ways of doing business in the U.S. versus what they are used to in their homeland was the biggest challenge.
Both men spoke on a panel Friday at the Toledo Press Club’s “Pressing Issues” event at the downtown public library. The panel also included a TV news anchor and a newspaper reporter.
The mayor and Monske, until recently Toledo’s deputy mayor of economic development, engineered two recent real estate deals with the Dashing Pacific Group, a pair of Chinese investors. One involved the purchase of The Docks restaurant complex, which was followed by the acquisition of 69 acres in The Marina District. Those deals resulted in nearly $8 million for city coffers.
Journalists who covered a recent trade trip to China by local leaders admitted they were amazed by “how Western,” “modern,” and “cosmopolitan” many of the cities were. But they were quick to point out the presence of “red armbands” and police with authority to keep them from reporting the news on a public street.
“A lot of it is based on the trust factor. They have to be comfortable with you,” said the mayor, citing some of the Chinese businessmen were ill-at-east at first with the presence of US-American journalists who later “blended into the background.”
At the same time, the presence of local journalists facilitated the Toledo community’s better understanding of why the trade trips were happening in the first place.
“90 percent of it was what you saw,” said Monske about meetings with Chinese government and business leaders.
“This was about building relationships,” said the mayor, who brushed off early criticism from city council members upset about not knowing about the trip or its itinerary. “If I’m going to win or lose on this, I’m going to do it my way.”
Mayor Bell told the crowd a third China trip is in the planning stages for mid-September, which also will include some stops in Japan.
But Chinese leaders “are paying attention to every word, every sentence” on local coverage of Toledo-China relations, said Monske. He explained that every person they were meeting with had detailed knowledge of the reporting back in Toledo, based on Internet stories and other research they had done.
Mayor Bell stated he has had meetings with business leaders from other countries who have read about Toledo’s efforts in China, and want to pursue opportunities as well. He cited the double-edged sword, because of the good and bad perceptions that can develop from media coverage.
“You don’t want to be the P.R. machine for the RGP or the mayor’s office,” noted 13-ABC anchor Lee Conklin. “You wanted to give the flavor of China. It wasn’t just about shiny buildings. There were suspect neighborhoods two streets away.”
“I thought the reporting was fair,” admitted the mayor. “But realize you are the face of Toledo and what you put down will be seen in California, as well as China. It’s almost like they’re living here, but living here from a distance.
“The part that has been so amazing with every group that comes into town.”
Mayor Bell told the crowd he met earlier this week with another group of Chinese investors, unrelated to the Dashing Pacific Group. He stated that they had been to other, larger U.S. cities but remained most interested in Toledo.
“They don’t even like other places,” the mayor said. “They like it here.”
But Toledo’s mayor also pointed out that city residents tend to have a negative self-image of their hometown, which outsiders can easily pick up.
“We’ve got to work on the attitude of Toledoans because that’s going to help build our economy,” said Mayor Bell, emphasizing city residents need to help “sell” Toledo’s image to others to encourage them to invest here. .
Brian McMahon, a real estate developer who attended the Q-and-A session, explained that many people—even public officials—don’t understand elected and business leaders “must sign a confidentiality agreement” when they try to lure a company to locate in Northwest Ohio.
“What they are doing is very sensitive and there can’t be too much publicity too early,” said McMahon.
The mayor related a couple of anecdotes where a communication gap occurred with Chinese leaders. At one meeting, their hosts were dressed in casual, light clothes—because they had turned the air conditioning off. The Toledo delegation was dressed in business suits and suffering accordingly. They did not know it was a nationwide energy-conservation effort. Otherwise, they would have dressed more properly.
“If there is negativity on issues affecting our community, that doesn’t help people outside reading about them,” said Monske. “They won’t want to do business here.”
“We’re not slowing down. We’re going to keep going internationally,” said Mayor Bell.