Interview: Mike Fowler on Tacoma's new and growing business and friendship ties with China
By Wen Liu June 28, 2016
Seattle and Tacoma may have ended their rivalry in port operations with The Northwest Seaport Alliance, when it comes to ties with China, however, the two might still be in a friendly competition. Seattleites may have seen their Mayor Ed Murray take a delegation to China in May with new ties formed with Shenzhen and Hangzhou, Tacomans had their Mayor Marilyn Strickland visit China in April with new relationships made in Wuhan and Shanghai. Not to forget that Tacoma beat Seattle in hosting Xi Jinping in 1993! To tell us more about the ever stronger ties Tacoma is forging with China as well as the April trip, here is Michael Fowler, Consultant for the World Trade Center's China Trade and Investment Program and Consultant for the City of Tacoma, who traveled to China with Mayor Strickland.
WCWD: In April this year, you were part of a Tacoma delegation headed by Mayor Marilyn Strickland to China. What was the purpose of the visit? Was it in any way related to President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tacoma last September?
Mike Fowler: The main purpose of the visit as I understood it was investment and trade promotion as well as increasing the international profile of Tacoma with those goals in mind.
It was understood that traveling while President Xi's visit to Tacoma was fresh in the memory of many Chinese would contribute to our efforts. It did. I was impressed with how many Chinese even outside those who greeted us were aware of the visit.
WCWD: According to the Chinese media, the delegation attended an event in Shanghai where an announcement was made of a Tacoma Convention Center Hotel project to be developed by Yareton Investment & Management WA LLC. Could you tell us about the project, especially its connection with Shanghai?
Mike Fowler: One of the events in Shanghai had the purpose of introducing the City of Tacoma to an audience, some of whom could become investors. The delegation, however, did not explain the hotel in any detail. I don't believe that there were any new announcements made in Shanghai that had not already been publicized in Tacoma.
At that meeting and other meetings, we focused on introducing Tacoma to many unfamiliar with, but curious about Tacoma's economy, educational institutions and opportunities, development projects currently underway, our natural assets, etc.
The connection between Shanghai and the Convention Center Hotel is that the primary investor in the Convention Center Hotel project is a Shanghai-based hotelier. At this point the city is best source of the latest information on the progress of this project.
WCWD: There is another project we have heard about since late last year, a 6.4-acre town center development near the University of Washington Tacoma campus by a Wuhan company. Was the delegation in Wuhan for that project? Where is the project now?
Mike Fowler: As in Shanghai, the delegation didn't discuss the project in any detail, but did introduce Tacoma to the top officials in Wuhan in the fields of trade, education, and the local press. It is my hope and expectation that these leaders can help with contacts for our local exporters, promote our educational institutions, and help direct foreign direct investment in economically productive projects.
Again, the relevant departments at the City (Tacoma) will know more on the exact status of this project, but I understand that the City Council very recently approved a related agreement with the developer.
WCWD: As posted on both the Wuhan municipal as well as the Hubei provincial government websites, Tacoma and Wuhan signed a friendship city agreement. Could you tell us when or how the idea came about of officially establishing friendly ties between Tacoma and Wuhan?
Mike Fowler: Yes, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed for the establishment of a "Friendly Exchange City" relationship. Due to the above-mentioned potential investor from Wuhan and the relatively large number of short-term exchange students who have already come from Wuhan, having a more formal acknowledgment of a relationship that already exists could encourage it to grow further and expand it into the export trade as well.
The new formal relationship with Wuhan gave Tacoma access to the top leadership mentioned above. Moreover, the signing was televised and was carried in the press.
When promoting trade and investment, it is easier to add momentum to something that is already moving rather start from a standstill. We are hopeful that this will be the case.
WCWD: You have been working for years in developing China trade and business for Tacoma, which was put on the map big time last year when President Xi Jinping visited. What did Xi’s visit mean for you, and people like you who work to build Tacoma’s relations with China, as well as for all Tacomans?
Mike Fowler: On the trip I was impressed that almost without exception our Chinese counterparts were aware of President Xi's visit to Tacoma. They seemed to have interest not only in Tacoma's historical link to their president (in that he helped establish the Sister City Relationship with Fuzhou 22 years ago), but they have a genuine interest in learning more about Tacoma itself.
We found it very easy to set up appointments and a productive itinerary. I expect that all Tacomans traveling to China will find that President Xi's visit here will be a frequent topic of conversation. It's nice when someone knows where you're from and takes an interest in that. Foresight and effort on the part of the City and and the Port have paid off.
(For more about Mayor Marilyn Strickland's China trip in pictures, go to WA China News Pics.)
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)