Ibaraki sister-city relationship focuses on biotech development

Minneapolis officials, boosters and biotech business leaders hope to make good on their 25-year sister-city relationship with Ibaraki, Japan, and transform the partnership &#8220from baton-twirling to economic development,” in the words of Downtown City Councilmember Lisa Goodman.

Goodman (Ward 7) was part of a delegation of City Councilmembers, business leaders and citizens that traveled last fall to Ibaraki, a city of 250,000 near Osaka in the south of Japan. The delegation looks to Ibaraki - at the heart of Japan's biotech and life sciences industry - as a model for and potential partner with the Twin Cities' own biotech industry.

The five-day trip in November also may have saved the sister-city relationship. Ibaraki has visited annually, but Minneapolis has returned the favor less often, and the Japanese have asked for more from the city. They have invited the Minneapolis delegation, including Mayor R.T. Rybak, to return this fall. Unlike former mayors Rybak hasn't made the trip, and despite pressure from the Council says he does not have plans to visit Ibaraki at this time.

The delegation was made up of Councilmembers Goodman, Scott Benson (Ward 11), Barb Johnson (Ward 4) and City Council President Paul Ostrow (Ward 1), as well as biotech industry leaders and representatives from the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association (GMCVA) and the Minneapolis Ibaraki Sister City Association (MISCA).

A handful of those delegates met before the Council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee on Dec. 20 to discuss the trip and the future of the relationship.

Trading delegations

The most recent trip focused on building a bridge between the two cities' biosciences industries. &#8220We spent eight hours a day in meetings discussing biosciences in two languages,” Goodman said of the trip. Members of the delegation toured biotech facilities, including Osaka University and Saito, a life-science city built on a mountainside north of Ibaraki funded by $80 million from the government.

Of Minneapolis' numerous sister-city partnerships, Ibaraki has the most potential for business opportunities, said Bill Deef, vice president of tourism sales for the GMCVA. City representatives hope to nurture a two-way relationship in biotechnology and life sciences research and industry.

&#8220The Japanese government has invested billions of dollars into the biosciences,” said Dave Durenberger, delegation member and chief financial officer for Gustilo Medical Education Center, based in Elliot Park.

A letter from Council President Ostrow to Ibaraki outlines next steps, including learning about Ibaraki's transportation planning, energy programs and land development process.

Minneapolis also hopes to encourage &#8220trade, investment and joint ventures on a business level,” including an annual venture capital conference in Minneapolis to showcase companies from Ibaraki.

The city also proposes educational exchanges between both Osaka University and Ibaraki and Minneapolis industries, foundations and the University of Minnesota, including students between Saito and the Elliot Park Life Sciences Institute.

An R.T. visit?

Whether any of these exchanges happen may well hinge on Minneapolis' further participation - particularly that of Mayor Rybak, who supports sister-city relationships.

Rybak's 2006 budget includes $50,000 to build Minneapolis' sister-city relationships. He was part of the 25-year anniversary celebration this summer, and he traveled to the Biotech Conference in San Francisco two years ago. He has made a pitch to biotech industries in sister-city Uppsala, Sweden - another global leader in biotech and life sciences - to headquarter a planned U.S. expansion in Minneapolis.

Still, Benson said in an interview, &#8220It was clear that there is an expectation that the mayor come to Ibaraki.” As mayors, Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton both made the trip.

Councilmembers have indicated to the Japanese that Rybak will make the trip in the future. Ostrow's letter to the Ibaraki delegation concludes: &#8220We are enthused about these possibilities and are eager to return with Mayor Rybak.” Benson noted at one point that the delegation - by way of Councilmember Goodman - promised Ibaraki's mayor Senichi Nomur that Rybak would make the trip.

&#8220If we don't produce the mayor, there'll be a divorce,” Goodman said during the committee meeting, adding that she has lobbied for the mayor to go. Goodman said that the city would be humiliated if Ibaraki decided not to continue the relationship.

Rybak said he has no plans to visit Ibaraki but has not ruled it out entirely.

Rybak said his decision will be based on the budget, adding that he has not taken an international trip as mayor for that reason and because of &#8220focus at home.” Three of the Councilmembers' offices reported $1,200-$1,500 in expenses for the trip.

Lois Sonstegard, MISCA's president, emphasized both the importance of the relationship and how serious the Japanese are about the city's participation.

&#8220The already-established [Ibaraki sister-city] relationship allows us to move very quickly into economic development,&#8220 Sonstegard told the Council committee. &#8220To not take advantage of it would be a tremendous loss to the citizens and the economy.”