This week, city council members will continue discussions about a plan to send a delegation of representatives from the City and the Savannah Economic Development Authority for a week long trip to Sweden in September to attend a green building conference and meet with Swedish business officials. The travel plan has come under fire from some critics who believe that with a City budget deficit looming, the cost of the trip isn't justifiable.
The question boils down to how city officials choose to respond to our current economic crisis - some feel it would be safer to wait for better financial footing before incurring the costs of courting international economic development, while others feel that relationships with international businesses could be the boost we need to speed up recovery.
"There's going to be an interesting debate coming up," says District 3 Alderman Larry Stuber, one of the council members slated to travel next month. "We can withdraw and say the City ought not to be doing this kind of stuff, or we can get out there and be a player in the global economy and take advantage of some of these opportunities when they come along."
Some of the controversy surrounding the trip stems from previous public outcry over a trip to China last November by the mayor and several members of council, which critics feel lacked transparency and measurable outcomes of success.
While Sweden and Savannah might seem like strange bedfellows superficially, economic development authorities from both locales held lengthy meetings in April to discuss the creation of a mutually beneficial relationship built around business exchanges, green technologies and university programs.
The Entrepreneurial Days Conference included meetings between officials from SEDA, SCAD, the City and local business leaders along with representatives from an assortment of institutions representing the Swedish city of Vaxjo, which is heralded as the "Greenest City in Europe."
The trip next month helps honor the agreement reached after the eDays conference, and representatives from Savannah will attend a green building conference, which Stuber and others hope will aid in the construction of Savannah Gardens, an eco-friendly development similar to Sustainable Fellwood where Strathmore Estates used to be.
"Savannah Gardens is being used as an example to show them how the City, State and Federal governments are taking steps to encourage the use of "green and energy saving technologies" in neighborhood revitalization, infrastructure and building projects," said Director of Housing Martin Fretty, who will also be part of the Sweden trip.
The hope is that by demonstrating our area's interest in eco-friendly technologies, officials can generate interest from European companies looking to expand into the US market. Despite a difficult economic climate, international investment has been a boon for the Savannah area and the state of Georgia.
In the last year, Georgia has seen substantial investments from international businesses, including a Kumho tire manufacturing plant in Macon, a Kia parts manufacturer in LaGrange, and the EFACEC power transformer plant in Rincon, which combined total almost $500 million of investment, and will create about 1700 new jobs.
Additionally, Coby Electronics, a Chinese personal electronics manufacturer, will be locating its East Coast Distribution facility near Port Wentworth and has recently leased a 150,000 sq. ft. industrial space on Knowlton Way, which will also have significant economic impact.
City officials' focus on international business recruitment follows a trip to Charlotte last month to meet with the Charlotte International Cabinet, which for the last 15 years has worked to develop a strong international business community in the Queen City, and has reaped the financial rewards inherent in their success. The mayor and several members of council attended a two-day workshop with CIC officials who helped lay out a road map for improving economic development efforts by creating synergy between the public and private sectors.
When asked why city officials were needed to be part of the trip, in addition to members of SEDA, Stuber cited the CIC's model, saying that they recommend using local government to help close deals, and to show the commitment of the city as a whole, rather than just the business community.
"Local government has to be part of the process of recruiting international business, it can't be avoided," he explains. "We need to do our share to foster [economic] development so our city grows. You can't do that by pulling back, or someone is going to beat you to the prize."
In the end, Stuber's sentiment is one of concern for the future, and a need to maintain an advantage over other cities during the recession.
"There are other cities doing this too. We're competing with them," he says. "You've got to get on the field and play...Travel is a minor part of the big picture."