Don Plusquellic stood behind the lectern in July of last year, and defended his travel abroad. The Akron mayor explained that for every dollar spent, the city and region reaped $3,989 in return. Not a bad deal, he emphasized, alluding to the foreign capital that has crossed the seas to settle right here.
The city counts $511.6 million in foreign investment within its borders, and another $51 million in surrounding communities. The mayor insisted real companies are ready to locate in Akron, expressing confidence in an economic strategy that has gone global in a precise, focused and determined way.
What this year has revealed is the accuracy of his prediction. The mayor talked about developing a brand, the city with a distinctive place in the international marketplace. That pursuit has gained momentum. The acceleration didn’t come, as Plusquellic stressed, through a “fancy blog or a fancy website.”
For years, the city has been a presence at trade shows, notably, in Hannover (advanced manufacturing) and Dusseldorf (plastics and rubber), in Germany, looking to attract European companies seeking to operate in this country. More recently, it has done the same in Shanghai with an eye on Asian firms. The effort has yielded successes, lately, for instance, Roechling Automotive, the German auto parts maker, drawn by such area strengths as the close proximity of its customers and the deep local knowledge about polymers.
Roechling opened its new plant nearly a year ago. Yet the achievement wasn’t really part of the new direction the city has taken in economic development, the aspect so defining about the past year.
Bob Bowman, the deputy mayor for economic development, talks about the city erecting a “technology bridge” for foreign companies to enter this country. He describes the concept of a “soft landing” for budding high-technology firms. He sees Akron as a place where foreign companies aligned with its strengths can do business easily, the city welcoming, agile and small enough to get things done for those seeking to set roots in the American market.
The impetus for the evolution in strategy came in 2005, Plusquellic touring Israel as part of a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The visit opened his eyes to the potential of the buzzing Israeli business incubator network, a hive of startup activity. And when successful startups want to expand their horizons? Why not build partnerships that put Akron in position to be their avenue into the United States?
A year later, the city had invested in the Targetech incubator in Netanya. Akron broadened its presence in Israel, attending trade shows and then conferences involving renewable energy and water technologies. In 2011, the city struck a deal with ICS that brought the Israeli water system security company to Akron’s Global Business Accelerator.
An agreement followed with Mei-Netanya, another Israeli company involved in managing water systems. In February, Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, chose Akron for its first location in the United States.
The Finns arrived next, an agreement reached between the Global Business Accelerator and the Helsinki Business and Science Park. Two “boot camps” have been held for Finnish startups seeking to gain a foothold here. One, 7signal, has located in the accelerator, its operations up and running, providing wireless technology to the health-care industry.
Then, word about Akron spread.
A diplomat from the Turkish consulate in Chicago arrived here at the invitation of the Akron Council on World Affairs. He connected with Sam DeShazior of the city’s planning department. Next thing, in April, a delegation from the Chicago International Trade Commissioners Association landed, 17 countries represented. The visitors were impressed enough to invite the mayor and his team to make a full presentation to the association in Chicago.
Among those showing a keen interest were officials from Slovenia. An exchange of visits, Plusquellic, Bowman and Councilman Garry Moneypenny traveling there in September, and an agreement soon was complete. The partner is the Technology Park Ljubljana, the Center of Excellence for Polymer Materials setting up an office at the accelerator to test the American market.
Catch the pattern?
Israel. Finland. Slovenia. Each has a small, highly educated population with new technologies in need of commercialization and sales. In Akron, they have an entry point where they get full attention, and on a familiar and comfortable scale, partners seeking to clear barriers together, each with a stake in success.
It follows that Bowman has been exploring relationships in Sweden, Lithuania and in Aachen, Germany, (a deal already completed with Technology Center Chemnitz).
Fifteen companies from Taiwan are coming to Akron in the spring.
Hard to miss the importance of selling in growing markets overseas. This global strategy has an equally positive flip side, bringing ideas and talents here, enhancing local strengths, creating jobs. Need more be said about the mayor’s travels?
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.