Sister city trip to China: Building relationships

By KATIE EGAN ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Delegates from one of Asia’s largest countries visited Cape Coral in February.

City officials and members of local businesses then visited China in early June to continue establishing a mutually beneficial sister city relationship.

Now, government officials from Baise are slated to return to Cape Coral in early 2020, and delegates from Chengdu are expected to visit in the fall.

It’s a relationship in its infancy but one its would-be matchmakers say could mature into a marriage of mutual economic benefit.

— Reaching out

For the past two years, the city has been working on a relationship with Baise, the westernmost prefecture-level city of Guangxi, near the Vietnam border.

In February, a delegation from Baise (pronounced BYE-SA) visited Cape Coral to get the ball rolling.

The goal was to showcase the best of Cape Coral and offer key business and educational tours. The delegation visited local businesses including the Cape Coral Hospital and Ecological Laboratories, which currently has a manufacturing facility in China.

Business owner JoAnne Killion, who provides educational student exchange programs, initiated the plan to find a sister city in China more than two years ago.

“Being an educator, I personally would like to see that the sister city merging will help our children in the near future,” Killion, who was part of the city delegation, said. “In participating in many exchange programs, like music, art and languages, see the world and know more friends.”

According to Killion, a sister city relationship is based on the commitment of two cities embarking on a mission to create exchange in areas of arts and culture, education, health/medical, tourism, growing our economy and community engagement.

Killion says she was once a volunteer in a global program, where she hosted visitors from all over the world.

“They stayed with us, we shared different cultural views, and we know a lot about their countries, their way of life and their languages and history,” she said. “My husband and I were involved for 18 years, and we enjoyed every bit of it.”

At first glance, Baise and Cape Coral may not appear to have much in common. Baise is a lot larger, more than 20 times the size of Cape Coral with 12 counties and 135 townships.

However, the two cities share similar climates, and they’re both popular municipalities and well-known tourist destinations.

Cape Coral’s newly appointed economic development manager, Ricardo Noguera, said the goal of the early June trip to China was to expand the market for Cape Coral businesses, expand revenue and create more local job opportunities.

“It expands the image of the Cape at a global level as a great place to invest,” he said. “More investments in the Cape help to grow the local economy and attract more jobs to the city.”

At first, Baise was originally the only city on the agenda.

However, according to Noguera, City Manager John Szerlag told him he wanted the trip to be more than a cultural exchange; he wanted to expand the venture into economic development.

So, Noguera reached out to a contact in Shanghai and eventually got in touch with someone from Chengdu, a 12-hour car ride away from Baise.

“This all happened in a matter of weeks,” he said. “Before you knew it, we were able to add a second city to the trip. And that was all about economic development.”

Noguera previously served as economic development chief for the city of Tacoma, Washington.

Washington state, like California, has a strong Chinese base and business ties and Tacoma is among the communities that have benefitted economically.

— Making contacts

The entire delegation consisted of Noguera; Killion, Mayor Joe Coviello; his executive assistant, Pearl Taylor; interpreter, Lucinda Chu; Cape Coral Director of Community Development Vince Cautero; Cape Coral Hospital Nursing Director Lorri Philban; Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ecological Laboratories Matthew Richter, and Chief Operating Officer of Ecological Laboratories, Robert Richter.

They arrived in Chengdu late at night on Saturday for a whirlwind 36-hour trip.

There they met with a representative from Asia Star, a private firm that works directly with the local government.

Noguera says it’s hard to do business in China without first going through the government.

“You go through the government and get their blessing and then they provide connections with private industries,” he said. “Asia Star is like an agent that acts as a broker to assist private industry overseas and in China to do work there.”

On Sunday, the group met with government officials.

On Monday, they had a formal meeting with government officials and toured an incubator and presented opportunities that exist in Cape Coral.

“As a result of this trip, government officials and Asia Star are planning a trip to come here in the fall,” Noguera said.

He also said he’s already started connecting some local employers in Chengdu.

“That’s why they are coming here in the next three to four months,” Noguera said. “Having folks coming here to further explore investment in Cape businesses. I see opportunities for manufacturing and companies that produce products here to sell in Chinese markets or purchase supplies.”

On Monday night, the group traveled to Nanning and then drove two hours to Baise.

On Tuesday, they toured a major hospital and university. The Cape Coral delegation also met with government officials and pitched opportunities to invest in Cape Coral.

“I think we made a very good connection there between Lee Health and the Baise medical community,” Noguera said.

— Building relationships

Philbin says Lee Health is always looking for opportunities for innovative programs and any new technology out there to help improve health and wellness.

One of the Cape Coral Hospital nursing director’s goals for the trip was to tour the Medical Hospital of Youjiang Nationalities and meet hospital officials and find a common interest. She also toured the Youjiang Medical School.

“The trip is all about building relationships first,” Philbin said. “When they came to us in February, it was a meeting for them to understand our city and see what we have to offer. Us going to China was the same thing.”

Philbin learned that gastric cancer is very prevalent in China and the two cities agreed on two common interests: outpatient therapy and cancer treatment.

Philbin is also talking with Lee Health about pursuing an opportunity for a physician exchange program.

“Any opportunity to learn is always beneficial to those immediately involved and to the community at large,” she said. “Any time we can share ideas, it makes Cape Coral and Lee County a better community.”

Right now, Lee Health and the Cape Coral hospital are exploring the physician exchange program with senior leadership.

Nothing is finalized and the two sides are working on logistics, setting goals, and ensuring that all state and federal regulations are met.

“We are looking for opportunities that might be mutually beneficial to both countries,” she said.

With any exchange program, what I would like to see come out of that is new knowledge, whether that’s increasing the technology, or new medication.”

— Foundation forged

According to Noguera, Baise government officials are planning a trip to Cape Coral in early 2020.

He said the June trip facilitated opportunities to help local companies sell their goods as well as purchase supplies and export products.

“It expands the image of the Cape at a global level as a great place to invest,” he said.

While the Baise Delegation was here in February, Ecological Laboratories showed them what they do in Cape Coral and what they already do in China.

In June, the company met with the director of the National Agriculture Institute, and continued previous talks from earlier in the year.

Companies in China are currently testing Ecological Laboratories’ Microbe-Lift product, a living microorganism bacteria.

Vice President and Chief Information Officer Matthew Richter said Ecological Laboratories showed the director of the National Agriculture Institute an organic fertilizer.

“The benefit is not adding chemicals to the environment,” he said.

Ecological Laboratories also met with the Department of the Environment and River Projects and explained to them what can be done when a river is having nutrient problems and needs to be regulated to get back to a healthy condition.

Richter used the Cabot Canal in Cape Coral as an example.

“We were given six months to use our product and in those six months, we brought the canal back to perfect health,” he said

Richter said these kinds of connections with international countries and companies are normally made through networking and contacts and trade shows.

“This is not like that,” he said. “It’s two delegations meeting and talking about how we can help each other.”

“We feel very positive about what we accomplished.”

One of Noguera’s goals is for Cape Coral to be known internationally.

“We already have folks from Germany, Canada and elsewhere investing in Cape Coral,” he said. “We want to broaden that and bring new money to our city. A city grows by attracting more investment from outside and more investment means more jobs.”

Noguera said these things don’t happen overnight, but, “you’re already seeing results.”

“We went to visit Baise, but we added Chengdu,” Noguera said. “This fall, we have people coming from Chengdu. I think we will be seeing positive results in upcoming months.”

Richter says the trip’s ultimate goal comes down to having Chinese officials come over here to invest in the area.

“At the end of the day, if they get one nice- sized project to come over here, it’s something the city doesn’t have,” he said. “That means more tax dollars coming into the city.”

“It’s a good promotional way to get people to come here. It’s thinking outside of the box.”

© Copyright 2019 Cape Coral Daily Breeze. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.  REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE BREEZE, CAPE CORAL FLA.

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