Tapping into the world

Mayor Rybak says it’s time for Minneapolis to go global

Richfield’s Best Buy has a store in Shanghai, China. Airline IcelandAir has just six hubs in the United States, one of which is at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. North Minneapolis is home to the new $35 million headquarters of medical-device maker Coloplast, a company from Denmark.

The point? The Twin Cities are part of a global economy.

Too bad the world doesn’t know that as well as it should. So said Mayor R.T. Rybak, who amid plans for a “Homegrown Minneapolis” also is proposing the total opposite: Further feed the city’s economy by promoting its global presence as much as possible.

The parts are here, he said. Target already has sourcing centers throughout the world. RSP Architects designs towers in Tianjin, China. The University of Minnesota has the most Chinese students of any American university.

But there’s no cohesive strategy to make Minneapolis’ global presence as marketed and efficient as possible, Rybak said. Starting with a tour next month through China, he hopes to change that.

The trip originated because of an invitation for the mayor to speak at an international forum on technology enterprise development. He’ll be one of four mayors in the world to speak there; the others will represent London, Quebec City and Stockholm, Sweden.

The speech is Rybak’s original reason for heading East. Boosting Minneapolis’ economy has become his larger goal.

The trip will have four facets. The first is creating awareness of the Twin Cities. The mere travels of the mayor should drum up some media interest, said Bill Deef, vice president of global partnerships at Meet Minneapolis, “which will allow us to be able to present Minneapolis to the world.” (Deef will be Rybak’s travel partner.)

The second is to promote the city as a travel destination. Tourism, especially from the Chinese, “is just going to be a market that explodes,” Deef said. Last year alone, Chinese travelers spent $2.5 billion in the U.S.

“We love all the people that come from Iowa and Wisconsin,” Deef said. “They come often. But an international visitor, while they’re here, spends a great deal more.”

The trip also will provide a chance to travel to Harben, China. That’s Minneapolis’ Chinese sister city, representatives of which were here last year.

“We will hopefully deepen our relationship,” Rybak said.

The key part of the trip, though — and this applies the most to the mayor’s hopes for the city — will be visits to Chinese hubs of Minneapolis-based businesses. At the time the Southwest Journal did interviews for this story, the trip itinerary was still in flux. But Rybak, Deef and mayoral spokesman Jeremy Hanson mentioned possible trips to Target sourcing centers and/or the China offices of Mortenson Construction and RSP.

Rybak said he doesn’t know exactly all the China connections Minneapolis has. He thought he knew of most — until he announced the trip at last month’s state of the city address. He’s since heard from a surprising number more.

“So many different people have come forward,” he said. “It’s both encouraging and daunting.”

He said he hopes his stops will help him begin to figure out exactly how the city can help. He talked about possible partnerships to help businesses ease transitioning work into foreign countries while asking them to help raise awareness of Minneapolis.

“We have a phenomenal opportunity,” Rybak said.

Phenomenal, but late, too.

Because the international parts have been here for some time, the city could have had a strategy in place much longer, he said. In his state of the city speech, Rybak cited Austin, Texas, a city he said has city employees in seven different countries specifically to boost international relations.

That’s not something he said as likely to happen here, especially considering the current economy. (The China trip takes that into account: Deef said the preliminary cost is about $3,400, although not including the price of probable interpreters.)

How exactly then will Minneapolis strongly boost its spot in the world? Rybak’s not sure yet. These ideas are at the very start of their development.

“But we’re Minneapolis,” he added. “We’re smarter than a lot of people. We’ll have to just be as good with fewer resources.”

Have your own link to China?

Mayor R.T. Rybak says he’s been surprised at how many China business connections he’s learned of over the past month. “It’s both encouraging and daunting,” he said. Rybak wants to work as many stops at Minneapolis-linked businesses as possible into his brief trip abroad, so if your business has a connection to China, he wants to know about it. Send an e-mail to [email protected]

The China connection

Mayor R.T. Rybak says that while Minneapolis is behind on meeting its full potential on the global stage, pieces are in place to make it successful. Here’s a small snippet of examples of local and regional companies that already have significant Chinese connections:

Target: The Downtown-headquartered company doesn’t own any manufacturing plants. Instead, it sources owned-brand products from many foreign countries, including China.

Best Buy: The Twin Cities-based electronics chain opened its first store in China in 2007. It has three offices throughout the country, in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen.

RSP Architects: The Northeast-based architecture firm has had an office based in Tianjin, China, since 2004. It currently has about 25 projects in some stage of work in China.

University of Minnesota: The Twin Cities campus has almost 1,163 undergraduate and graduate students from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Based on anecdotal evidence, the university has the highest enrollment of Chinese students at any American university.