There is a great article in this week’s Economist about Toledo, Ohio. Of course any story about the Midwest catches my eye. But this story is particularly interesting because it has three of my favorite elements: cities, infrastructure, and globalization. And, of course, some fun Midwestern politics.
The mayor of Toledo, Michael Bell, has successfully attracted investment from Chinese businesses — to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Chinese companies have built a $2.15 million restaurant complex, the city’s waterfront “Marina District,” and a metalworking plant on Toledo’s Maumee River. He has made three trips to China to solicit investment, and his selling points are extremely compelling: Toledo is near major interstates, it’s relatively cheap, it has skilled workers, and an under-used airport. Hard to argue!
Of course, there are some reasons to argue. Some Toledo residents are worried that they will lose jobs, and there were rumors in the city that “Chinese submarines would lurk offshore or that Chinese firms would foul Lake Erie” (a lake that was recently ‘brought back from the dead‘). Overall though, the sense is that Toledo residents are open to Chinese investment and the opportunities it may bring.
An interesting point in the article is that this pragmatism (go Midwest!) is not matched by the presidential candidates, both of whom have given “fiery” speeches about cracking down on China and asserting American independence. This type of talk might be effective at playing on people’s patriotism and fears about the future, but it also makes Chinese investors nervous. This could be a problem for struggling Midwest cities that see an opportunity.
Toledo’s story is part of a broader trend: mayors acting on their own to find trade and investment opportunities abroad. It has some pretty interesting implications for urban development, intergovernmental politics, and elections. Being the mayor of Toledo may now have very different implications for a person’s political career and policy decisions. Already we see a divide between national and local political candidates in their stance toward foreign investment (at least in stump speeches). Keep an eye on this trend – I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon.