Nutter's travels draw praise, doubts

During his December trip to China, Mayor Nutter was briefed by officials on a $3 billion economic-development zone.
During his December trip to China, Mayor Nutter was briefed by officials on a $3 billion economic-development zone. (JENNIFER LIN / Staff)

The goal of the 10-day excursion is to help companies expand overseas and draw jobs here. But do such trips work?

Posted: October 14, 2013

PHILADELPHIA Less than a year after he traveled to China, Mayor Nutter is using his passport again - to promote Philadelphia in Britain and Israel.

His 10-day excursion, which begins Nov. 2, has been labeled a trade mission with a goal of recruiting companies to set up shop in Philadelphia and help businesses here expand their work overseas. Partnership pacts will also be signed between universities and hospitals here and in Israel.

With two years left in his second and final term as mayor, Nutter is looking to fulfill one of his goals - of better promoting Philadelphia on the national and world stage.

But is it worth it? And will Philadelphians benefit from his travels?

It depends whom you ask.

Those who went to China with Nutter in December say the excursion helped forge business, research, and educational connections there.

Experts on international business, however, say such missions don't open up new trade as much as build upon existing ties - such as those the city has in China, Britain, and Israel. Foreign investors won't bet on Philadelphia, as one scholar said, "simply because they met the mayor."

Local supporters of trade missions say that first meeting with a mayor is crucial.

"Having a very prominent leader attracts people, who want to know more about the region, to come to a meeting, and that allows people like me to do our work," said Tom Morr, who heads Select Greater Philadelphia, an economic-development marketing effort under the umbrella of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

Select, a nonprofit that markets the region as a place to do business, is picking up the tab for Nutter and a half-dozen aides. It also funded most of his China trip.

Taxpayers indirectly cover a bit of the cost - Select's annual budget of nearly $3 million includes $200,000 from the city, most of the rest from 120 businesses in the 11-county region, Morr said. Such trips aim "to grow local economy and improve prosperity," he said.

'Not practical'

Some Nutter critics - including one of his predecessors and a city councilman who has talked of succeeding him - doubt the value of his travels.

"These missions seemed to be more the purview of the state and required an awful lot of follow up which was not practical for local governments in my judgment," former Mayor John F. Street said in an e-mail. "I was more bothered that they would ultimately amount to little more than 'junkets' with no direct measurable benefit to the local tax-paying public."

Councilman Jim Kenney, arguing that low-skill industries in the Lehigh Valley or Lancaster would better suit some of the city's workforce than high-tech jobs with foreign firms, said, "If the mayor wants to go on the road, he should go on the road up the Turnpike."

A trade visit overseas by a mayor or even a head of state isn't much more than a "symbolic policy action," said Susan Feinberg, an associate professor of international business at Temple University. She and other experts said subsidies and tax breaks usually do more to bring foreign investors to U.S. cities.

An official's trade mission is "not going to open up trade that's not already there," Feinberg said. "It's really the activities you had before the mission that [international trade] really depends on."

Plenty of prep work has gone into Nutter's trips. His entourage in London and Tel Aviv is to include Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development, and other aides, as well as people from some two dozen Philadelphia-area companies.

After landing in London on Nov. 3, the Nutter crew is to meet with industry leaders in the sustainable energy, information technology, life science and financial services sectors. Then there's a visit to the World Travel Market Conference, which attracts tourism ministers from around the globe.

On Nov. 7, the crew will jet to Jerusalem, where Nutter will take part in a Jewish Federation of North America meeting. Then he will be joined by Drexel University president John Fry and Steven Altschuler, chief executive of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to announce a new research partnership with Hebrew University in Jerusalem involving pediatric drug discovery and exploring new ways to administer medicine to children.

The two schools and hospitals, which have already begun work on setting up a research consortium, will sign a letter of intent establishing the research partnership, Altschuler said.

The mayor and his delegation are also scheduled to visit companies in the growing IT sector in Tel Aviv. Israel is looking for a "landing spot" in the United States, and Philadelphia could be ideal since it is a place that supports start-ups and entrepreneurs, said Luke Butler, chief of staff to the Deputy Mayor Greenberger.

A bridge to Tianjin

The China trip grew out of an invitation: Nutter was asked to go to China in December as a speaker for a conference, hosted by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, on making China's megacities more livable and sustainable.

"We took that opportunity and wanted to build a broader agenda," Butler said.

Nutter went to Philadelphia's sister city Tianjin, where the visit of an American mayor was front-page news. Both are port cities that had seen better days and had suffered in the shadow of more prominent nearby cities. And both are now working on clean-energy economy.

Nutter's entourage included Merritt T. Cooke, a former diplomat with the U.S. Senior Foreign Commercial Service. Cooke is founder of the China Partnership of Greater Philadelphia, which is trying to foster collaboration on projects between regional businesses and institutions and their Tianjin counterparts.

Nutter's delegation also included representatives from Drexel, Fox Chase Cancer Center, the White & Williams law firm, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Since that trip, the Tianjin mayor came to visit Philadelphia in June, and this week, the China Partnership group is to host a trade mission from the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area. The Chinese delegation will look at the Navy Yard for prospects of chemical manufacturing and other clean-energy sources, Cooke said. The visitors will also be looking at the port for potential future investments.

Nutter's attempts at getting nonstop China Air flights to and from Philadelphia International Airport are on hold until the US Airways and American Airlines merger is completed, said Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald. White & Williams, the law firm that sent people to China with Nutter, has since hired two full-time Mandarin-speaking lawyers because of the work it is doing involving China.

Drexel and Nankai University in Tianjin signed an agreement between both universities' natural science museums, said Julie Mostov, vice provost of global initiatives at Drexel.

Nutter likely won't see the major fruits, if any, of his international labor while he is mayor.

"So many of the things we are doing now, we won't see benefit of," said Butler. "It's all long-term in nature."

Butler, who is joining Nutter on the November trip, has been working busily on plans for the mayor's stops in Tel Aviv and London.

Being British, he knows his way around the latter. But the schedule is already packed with meetings and events. "I don't think we will have much time for fish and chips," Butler said.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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