TOLEDO, Ohio —
The realization was as surprising as it was momentous. Toledo, long known as Glass City, needed glass, and it could no longer be manufactured here quickly enough.
So Toledo turned to China to make the 360 panels, 1,300 pounds each, needed for an extension to the Toledo Museum of Art. Some in Toledo resented the move after China supplanted the United States as the world’s top glass producer. But in the process, city leaders began an improbable and remarkable relationship.
In the past seven years since the museum project was completed, the ties between Toledo and China have grown. Chinese companies have paid more than $10 million in cash for two local hotels, a restaurant complex and a 69-acre waterfront property. Mayor Michael Bell has taken four trips to China in four years in search of investors. His business cards are double-sided, in English and Chinese.
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Huaqiao University, one of the largest higher-education institutions in China, recently signed an agreement to open a branch in Toledo. There also have been preliminary talks between local officials and a Chinese company about an arrangement in which industrial tools would be produced in China, shipped for assembly in Toledo and labeled “made in the USA,” which would allow them to be sold at a premium.
Toledo also has reached a deal for rarely seen Chinese antiques to be shown at the museum next year, and there are plans for the city to host a Chinese technology-trade fair. In all, more than 100 Toledo businesspeople have traveled to China in recent years, and hundreds of Chinese investors have been welcomed in return.
“For little old Podunk, Ohio, it’s been pretty phenomenal what we’ve been able to do,” said Dean Monske, president and chief executive of the Regional Growth Partnership, a local economic-development group.
Toledo is hardly the only U.S. city to make common cause with China.
Chinese companies made $12.2 billion in direct investments in the United States during the first nine months of 2013. That is up from $7.1 billion in all of 2012, which was a record at the time, according to the Rhodium Group, a New York-based consulting company. Chinese investors have been buying commercial and residential real estate in Detroit, inexpensively because of the city’s financial troubles, and have agreed to finance a $1.5 billion waterfront development in Oakland, Calif.
Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee also have increased their push for Chinese investment. But Toledo, a largely blue-collar city of about 280,000, appears to be punching well above its weight at a time mayors from Philadelphia to San Francisco are returning from China empty-handed.
“They looked on a map, figured out where we were sitting and saw the benefit,” said Bell, referring to Toledo’s location near a number of large U.S. and Canadian cities. “They could see that this town needed to be helped a little bit … and it would not probably take a whole lot to do.”
After their initial approaches — “Nobody had heard of Toledo,” Bell said — the city’s government and business leaders began pitching the feng shui of Toledo, where wind meets water. The city is a major transit hub, crossed by railways and highways, and has the busiest general cargo port in the Great Lakes region. Housing is affordable, and the abandoned factories mean there is plenty of space.
The city’s informal “handshake culture” has also helped, Chinese and American business officials said, as deals that might unravel amid the bureaucratic machinations of a bigger city can be completed in Toledo in a matter of weeks.
Zhixin Guo, known as Simon, who recently moved to Toledo with his family and owns the Park Inn Toledo hotel and other properties in town, has been instrumental in introducing Toledo officials to influential counterparts in China. His long résumé includes stints working for Rong Yiren — the former vice president of China credited with opening the economy to Western investment in the 1990s — and as a translator for government and business officials.
“When you think about the U.S., you can’t just think about New York and L.A.,” Guo said recently at his company, Five Lakes Global Group. “Don’t get me wrong, L.A. is fabulous. New York is great. But if you want to connect with American life, it’s Toledo.”
Bell said he had tried to educate residents about the need for foreign investment and the importance of building personal relationships. Business leaders say they do not anticipate much change once Bell leaves office next month and is replaced by D. Michael Collins, a former City Council member. Collins said he had no intention of changing course.
During one of his visits to China, Bell said, he and other officials were enjoying an evening gathering at which the drinks flowed freely. At one point, his hosts presented him with two more glasses of baijiu, a potent liquor, but this time they came with something extra. One glass contained snake blood; the other a snake’s gallbladder.
With a potential investment on the line, the mayor recalled, he grabbed the glass with the gallbladder and nudged the snake blood over to Monske, the economic-development official, who was a deputy mayor at the time. Each swallowed his drink in a gulp, leaving the hosts with mouths agape.
“The guy sitting on the other side of the table said: ‘I’ve lived in China all my life, and I’ve never done that one,’” Bell said. The mayor, who has a habit of sealing friendships with a bear hug, became an instant celebrity as news of his exploit preceded him on his tour of China. “The people traveling with me told me at the end of the 10-day trip: ‘You know, giving hugs — that’s not protocol,’” Bell said. “‘Then why did you let me do it?’”
Bell paused before adding that his aide had responded, “Because it was working.”
“The interesting thing,” Bell said, “is they’d started hugging me back.”