CINCINNATI -- At a time when President Donald Trump is vowing to play hardball with foreign companies that may not be following competitive rules in the U.S., the City of Cincinnati is making it clear that it can offer an attractive playing field for companies that don't have "USA" emblazoned on their uniforms.
There's not even the slightest hint of anti-Trump sentiment in the upcoming "Unlocking the Tri-State Region -- Foreign Direct Investment Symposium" that will be held March 31 in the Anderson Pavilion of Smale Riverfront Park.
Instead, the daylong symposium is designed to provide a wealth of information about how to convince foreign companies to establish or expand a business in Greater Cincinnati through a series of three panel discussions and a keynote address by Mark O'Connell, CEO of OCO Global, an economic-development consulting firm based in Belfast with representatives in six countries.
Although OCO is based in the United Kingdom, it's no stranger to Ohio.
The company was hired in 2014 by JobsOhio, a private nonprofit that was created to lead economic development in the state. OCO was brought on board to work in Japan to encourage its direct investment in the state, where the company's Honda plant in Marysville is the state's largest foreign-owned company, with 14,300 employees.
In terms of foreign investment in Ohio, Japan ranks first among 47 countries that have a location in the state and accounts for 29 percent of the employees -- more than 64,000 Ohio workers -- who receive paychecks from companies based outside the U.S., according to a 2016 report from the Ohio Development Services Agency.
Far closer to home, Indiana and Kentucky will be well represented on the three panels that have been assembled for the symposium.
Besides a long list of business and government leaders from Cincinnati and elsewhere in the state, the panels will include Lynn Allen, president and CEO of the Bluegrass International Fund in Louisville; Ed Webb, president and CEO of the World Trade Center of Kentucky in Lexington; Trey Grayson, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Josh Benton, executive director of Workforce Development for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, and Indiana Commerce Secretary Jim Schellinger.
Cincinnati worked diligently to attract regional participation in the event, according to Oscar Bedolla, director of the city's Department of Community and Economic Development, which is co-sponsoring the symposium with the Regional Economic Development Initiative (REDI) Cincinnati.
"I believe this is cutting edge not only for the market, but to see the city in a leadership role driving a conversation that is not just locally based, but regionally based, leveraging best practices from across the globe," said Bedolla, adding that he believes this is the first foreign investment event for which the city has played an organizational role.
"I think we're stronger collectively together. It's that simple," Bedolla said when asked about the roles Kentucky and Indiana will play March 31. "I think that us being the heart of the overall region, (that) there are some huge benefits for us facilitating this conversation because we benefit from the larger economy (in the region).
" … Historically, the region has benefited from more direct investment in things like manufacturing. What we're trying to do here is build upon that … What we're seeing with our relationship with REDI is that a lot of the prospects that are coming into the pipeline actually have an international component to them," Bedolla said.
Overall, there are some 400 companies in the region that have that international component, said Bedolla, pointing to data in the development services report.
The state report from last year that Bedolla cited shows that Hamilton County is home to 145 foreign companies that employ nearly 15,000 people while Butler County has 71 foreign companies that have created just over 5,200 jobs. Warren County ranks third in Southwest Ohio with 42 companies that employ nearly 5,200 people and Clermont County has 26 companies with about 3,500 workers, the state report shows.
The continued expansion of Eurostampa in Roselawn and the recent sale of the GE office building at The Banks are two good illustrations of why foreign investment is important to Cincinnati, Bedolla said.
Eurostampa, an Italian firm that prints labels for foods, wines, distilled spirits and other products, is planning its third expansion since it established its manufacturing plant and corporate office in the city, Bedolla said.
The company, with a history of about 10 years in Cincinnati, has 150 employees, according to figures supplied by the state. Eurostampa's chief financial officer, Gary Lanham, will be one of the panelists for the symposium.
The sale last fall of the GE Global Operations Center in The Banks shortly after the 12-story building was completed also demonstrates the value of foreign investment, Bedolla said.
The building was completed last year for about $90 million and was sold within a matter of months to a London-based equity firm for $107 million.
"That shows that there is interest in Cincinnati real estate," Bedolla said.
Although the sale doesn't create any jobs, Bedolla stressed that it delivers important messages about the city.
"One, we're a safe environment. Obviously there's a risk in investments (and we're) safe enough where someone felt comfortable enough to deploy a substantial amount of capital into our market. I think that that says that there's attention on our market -- not just regionally -- but nationally and globally and the benefit there is that … it opens us up as a gateway to international capital flows."
Bedolla sees no conflict between Trump and what the city is attempting to do through the symposium.
"Today's political environment helps to emphasize the importance of developing strategies that address the changing political framework to meet the growing needs of a regional economy," Bedolla said in an email. "With the recent changes instituted by President Trump's administration on immigration and the anticipated amendments in tax and regulatory reform, we believe Cincinnati, and cities like ours, should start to explore new strategies to attract foreign direct investment.
"The FDI symposium will bring technical experts from both the public and private sector to identify challenges and opportunities given the changes by the new administration. For example, Jim Schellinger, the Secretary of Commerce for the State of Indiana, will outline his experience working with the president to work with Carrier, an international air-conditioning and refrigeration solutions company, to retain approximately 1,000 jobs from being shipped overseas.
"With the president's extensive experience working overseas, we believe there is an opportunity for the new administration to leverage that experience to help attract FDI to help grow the Unites States economy," Bedolla said.
Another of the participants in the symposium will be Laura Brunner, president and CEO of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, which manages the two foreign trade zones that straddle the Ohio River in the region.
Charles Miller, president of the board of directors of Greater Cincinnati Foreign Trade Zone, stressed the importance of trade with other countries in a statement released after the extension of the management agreement with the port authority was announced in December.
"Our goal in the past year has been to make more companies aware of the cost-savings benefits of the Foreign Trade Zone program and why it can be so valuable to a company's bottom line," Miller said. "There are initial costs and time requirements involved in zone application and activation, but the payoffs are huge if an FTZ is feasible for your company."
The city is hoping to attract at least 150 people for the event, which begins at 8:30 a.m. and is open to the public. The cost is $50, which includes lunch, when O'Connell will speak.
Megan Ryan, special assistant to Bedolla, said the symposium also will allow the city to gather some information from audience members through a brief questionnaire that they will be asked to complete before the event.
"We want to make sure there are actionable pieces that come out of it so we have included a few quick survey questions about the audience so we can determine what industry they're coming from, what they're hoping to take away and what opportunities they're identifying in the market. So we're gathering that information ahead of time so that we can really tailor the event the day of (the event)," Ryan said.