Dothan mayor hopes Circle City offers 'Real USA'

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Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2013 6:45 pm | Updated: 10:00 am, Thu Mar 20, 2014.

Representatives from three Alabama cities have made two lengthy trips to China in hopes of luring jobs to their communities. A task once left to the state has now become a responsibility of local government. Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz and other local leaders have been aggressively pursuing a Chinese 3D printer manufacturer and other Chinese businesses. This is the third and final story in a series.

The numbers were running around in the sleep-deprived brain of Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz.

Keeping a handle on the various incentives discussed with just a single prospective industry can be difficult for the person fully caught up on sleep.

Schmitz, meanwhile, is less than 12 hours removed from a grueling 10-day economic development trip to China. Seventeen-hour days, five-hour bus rides, and numerous meetings with multiple companies looking to expand into the United States -- all with their own set of needs -- can be taxing.

Combine that with a 22-hour travel time back to Dothan, and the numbers are having a hard time finding a place to settle inside his mind.

Schmitz smiles. It’s a good problem to have.

The numbers are important. Cities and states are throwing more incentives than ever at prospective industries. Give away the moon and some city somewhere will offer the entire solar system.

During Schmitz’s most recent economic development trip to China, Schmitz said he and other Southern mayors decided to make something else the focal point of their presentations to Chinese CEOs.

To put it in Southernese, they asked “How’s your mama an’ ‘em?”

Economic recruiters from around the globe were in China to recruit companies looking to expand. Poland, Hungary, Israel and others were making pitches to the same companies being courted by Schmitz and other Southern mayors.

Schmitz said representatives from the other companies made impressive presentations about labor costs, financial incentives and other applicable data.

“When we got up there, we just talked about our communities, about the people. And, we asked them questions. While we all know in the end that economic facts and figures are going to be a big deal, we are learning that forming a relationship is more important,” Schmitz said.

Schmitz said he believed the approach gave the Southern mayors a recruiting advantage. While there, Schmitz had several meetings with executives from Jiangsu Zijin Group Co., Ltd., a large manufacturer of 3D printers. The company was responsible for donating two 3D printers to Wallace College and Dothan Technology Center in August. The executives have already been to Dothan once and plan to return next month with two of its engineers to look at potential sites.

“I think we have a very good shot,” Schmitz said.

While hopeful, Schmitz remains cautious.

“This is just the beginning and we are going to continue to work real hard,” Schmitz said. “At this point, we are continuing to build relationships.”

The next step in relationship building is a mini-Symposium in Dothan Nov. 11. While the primary purpose of the November event will be to educate local communities and businesses that want to participate in economic development, several Chinese guests are expected. Several national and international trade experts are expected to brief participants on international trade issues such as tax structure and federal rules and regulations.

The November event is a precursor to the U.S.-China Manufacturing Symposium March 26-28 in Dothan. Schmitz said more than 400 Chinese businesses are already registered for the event. Participants range from CEOs of companies who employ as many as 100,000 workers to small entrepreneurs. Schmitz said he met an owner of several Chinese tea houses who is interested in expanding into the United States and would like to open as many as 200 across the country.

“We are really looking to the March event as a way for us to put our best foot forward,” Schmitz said. “You know, a lot of these companies are going to go all over the United States, but for many of them, we will get first crack and we need to do it right. What we are finding is that they want to mingle with the real USA, and I think that’s what we have here.”

Schmitz said the event will have an impact beyond Dothan.

“There will be so many interested companies coming that everyone will need to step up,” Schmitz said. “The real key for everyone is figuring out how we, as a region, take advantage of the opportunity we have coming this way. We all need to identify what type of businesses we want in our communities. These are questions we need to be wrestling with and answering now.”

Industry recruitment is a journey, one full of peaks and valleys. Sometimes, deals are struck that fall through at the last minute and companies are lost to other communities. Deals often take years to come to fruition. And, occasionally a deal can be put together rather quickly. Dothan has experienced all of the above in past.

Obviously, Schmitz would like to be part of a project announcement that leads to real jobs in a matter of weeks. He also knows negotiations could take much, much longer. Even then, there are no guarantees.

“We don’t know for certain that we will get any manufacturing plants out of this,” Schmitz said. “What we do know is that we definitely won’t if we don’t have a seat at the table.”

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