Mayor dismisses travel critics, says city must ‘reach out and build relationships’Written by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
DELMENHORST, GERMANY — Toledo Mayor Mike Bell used an example from a recent interaction with the mayor of Zug, Switzerland, to illustrate why he and other representatives from Toledo are traveling this week to promote the city to overseas companies.
The meeting with Dolfi Müller was arranged through a college friend of Bell’s, who lives in the city.
“We sat down for about an hour and half,” Bell said. “I started talking about Toledo and said, ‘You know where Toledo is?’ He said, ‘Well, I mean, I sort of looked it up. I know it’s in Ohio.’
“The problem we have in our city is we make an assumption that everyone knows where Toledo is and what it’s about,” Bell said. “The reason I’m here and the reason I keep reaching out to these other counties and going everywhere I can is because most people don’t know about Toledo. They don’t know about the quality of life in Toledo. They don’t know about our art museum. They don’t know anything about Toledo.”
Many — including Councilman Joe McNamara, who is running for mayor against Bell — have criticized Bell’s overseas trips as an ineffective use of taxpayer money. But Bell defended his decision to visit Germany’s Hannover Messe, one of the world’s largest industrial trade fairs, as well as Delmenhorst, one of Toledo’s Sister Cities.
“Anytime you travel, you’re going to have your critics because everybody thinks you should just sit at home and things are just going to come to you,” Bell said. “It does not work like that in the real world, I’m sorry. You have to reach out and build relationships.
“You say Toledo and they’re like, ‘Uhh, that’s somewhere in Ohio, isn’t it?’ — even in the United States,” Bell said. “Unless you go out and market yourself they’re never going to go out and invest in your community. They have to get to know you. They have to have an interest built up in the community. What we do every time we go out and talk to someone is we go out and pique their interest.
“Businesses are willing to do that — to take a chance and see whether this might work or not. What we have always been afraid of doing in our city is taking a risk and reaching out to find out.”
The group with Bell plans to meet with at least six international companies April 11 and 12, but he declined to discuss specifics.
“My style typically is we just go,” Bell said. “You’ve got to get a feel for people where they’re at. We may set up a meeting and start to talk with somebody and you can tell they’re not into it and you just need to move on to the next one and stop wasting your time.”
City Finance Director Patrick McLean said the focus of the trip is to promote jobs and investment in Toledo, but stressed that building long-term foundations is the goal.
“It should be clear this is foundation level work,” McLean said. “Nobody’s under the illusion we’re going to come here and wind up with investments immediately or overnight. We would love that but that’s probably not realistic. What it takes is sustained development of relationships over time and making people recognize the positive things that Toledo has to offer in terms of doing business. If we as a group can get several business that sincerely were interested in looking at the city, that would be success without a question.”
“People in Toledo want results really quickly. They are not very patient,” Bell said.
“If we are able to build up two to three relationships I will consider this a successful trip because everything — everything — starts with a relationship,” Bell said. “Nothing’s going to happen unless you have a relationship. So that’s the goal here. And I think we have the right people in place with our sister cities, our business people, our economic development people. I think we’ll do well.”
Also traveling are Deputy Mayor of External Affairs and Economic Development Paul Syring, Regional Growth Partnership Vice President International Development D. Paul Zito, Public Information Officer Jen Sorgenfrei, University of Toledo Associate Director Undergraduate Admission Mark Schroeder, Toledo Sister Cities International Executive Director Susan Miko and private individual Christine Luttmann. Attorney Tim Greenwood was unable to attend the trip as planned and previously reported.
Bell also traveled to China in September 2010, May 2011, September 2011 and November 2012. He also traveled to India in April 2011 and visited Japan in May 2011 as part of his trip to China.
McNamara has criticized these trips, saying economic development efforts need to be evaluated on a cost-benefit basis.
“We haven’t seen any significant results from any of the Mayor’s past taxpayer-funded travel across the globe,” McNamara said in an email to Toledo Free Press. “Mayor Bell needs to realize when something isn’t working, it’s time to stop doing it over and over again.”
However, Zito countered that the average life cycle of a foreign direct investment project is about 18 months, from the time of first introduction and expression of interest to the time a company actually makes investment and starts hiring.
“This is not something that will most likely see immediate returns in three months, six months,” Zito said. “Americans like to do a quick intro, quick deal, I’ll talk to you next quarter. Europeans like to get to know a potential partner more intimately, the history of the company, their strategies for the future, the personalities behind the company. However, once a relationship has been established those relationships are generally deeper than those between American companies and deeper in terms of commitment, support and also innovation for the future.”
Other cities have been courting international companies for decades, McLean said.
“Toledo is a little bit late to the party, but better late than never,” he added.