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Chinese green team coming to Philly

Dec. 2, 2009

By Thomas J. Walsh

For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia City Planning Commissioner Natalia Olson-Urtecho, in partnership with the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia and a new international organization of business school students, has arranged for a Dec. 15th visit from 24 Chinese government officials and representatives from 15 Chinese companies interested in creating extensions of their businesses in Philadelphia.

“I’ve been working on getting companies from abroad – especially in the green technology area – to come here,” Olson-Urtecho said. “We don’t necessarily have the cash. China has a lot of cash.”

The event, to be hosted by the Philadelphia International Sustainability Association of Business Students, is called “Leading Change: Sustainability and the Future of Business, Technology, Policy, and the Environment in China and the U.S.”

It will show off “cutting-edge” Chinese and American sustainability efforts, organizers say. Chinese leaders will explain efforts on the provincial and national levels, spotlighting the city of Hebi and Henan Province.

The city of Philadelphia’s official involvement is not yet clear, but Olson-Urtecho says Mayor Michael Nutter is scheduled to appear. Sustainability Director Katherine Gajewski, who took over in June for the city’s first green czar, Mark Alan Hughes, will present the Greenworks sustainability program in a keynote speech.

Among the attendees are executives from the Chinese firms Henan Dongda High-Temperature Energy-Saving Materials Co., the Hebi Baiyunjia Printing Co. and the Hebi Anli-Huanyan Tire Co.

“Our conference will highlight the need for an international and interdisciplinary approach to sustainability,” wrote Chen Wang, co-president of the Wharton Sustainability Association, in a letter inviting Nutter to the conference. “We will showcase Hebi as a model city for sustainable economy and clean energy practices both for China and the world, and discuss Hebi’s program in conjunction with Philadelphia’s Greenworks program, the University of Pennsylvania’s Climate Action Plan, and other local efforts.”

The idea behind the “Philadelphia International Sustainability Conference” is to “provide a forum for the fruitful exchange of ideas on one of the most crucial issues of our time.”

Let’s trade
“This kind of sustainability conference … really supports our overall mission of helping companies compete in a global economy,” said Linda Conlin, president of the WTCGP. “It is very much in line with our efforts … to work with cities in focusing on sectors that have greater opportunities for growing high-value, high-tech jobs in the region.”

Conlin called China a “priority market” for the WTCGP, which partners with Drexel University on a program known as the China Operations Club, made up of local firms that do regular business there.

Conlin said the WTCGP has also worked with Temple University and the Wharton School at Penn on programs that hosted previous Chinese delegations. It is students from those three schools that make up the newly formed Philadelphia International Sustainability Association of Business Students.

Craig Schelter, executive director of the non-profit Development Workshop and a former Philadelphia Planning Commission Director, said opportunities for better trade between the city and other nations are not rare, but are often missed.

“When I was with the [Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.], it was the Swiss.” Schelter recalled. “So, the thing is, where do you make the rifle shot? We need to really make an effort to establish ties to other cities.”

Nowhere is that kind of target broader than in China, where “megacities” are the norm and the greatest rural-to-urban migration in history has been underway for half a decade or more. At least 20 cities in China have populations larger than Philadelphia’s.

China’s “newly urbanized population will live in eight megacities, those with a population of more than 10 million, as well 15 big cities with populations between 5 million and 10 million,” according to a consultant quoted in Newsweek a year ago. “In addition, by 2025 China will probably have at least 221 cities with a population over 1 million.”

Olson-Urtecho, an urban planner with H2L2 Architects who also sits on the Zoning Code Commission, is not confining her efforts to Asia. This year she has taken trade talk trips to South America and Europe as well.

In addition, she has been a veritable lobbyist on behalf of the city, making frequent trips this year to Washington, D.C., to champion, among other issues, green job initiatives backed by the city’s Green Economy Task Force and the Sustainable Business Network (see Feb. 4, 2009 PlanPhilly coverage here: http://planphilly.com/node/7205).

“Being that the Euro is so strong, we are a really good deal for a lot of European companies,” said Olson-Urtecho, who worked on NATO accession, international policies and environmental issues for the U.S. State Department in Budapest, Hungary before moving to Philadelphia.

“We’ve set huge targets for renewable energy to be part of our grid, and we are only at 1 or 2 percent. We can’t satisfy the 20 percent target (of the electrical grid) that we’re saying we want to achieve without the help of European companies.”

There are a lot of different things that are going on between government, academia and private business that fly under the radar, said Andrea Townrow, manager of business development for WTCGP. Townrow accompanied Olson-Urtecho on a June trade mission to several South American nations.

All politics are…
Looking abroad for new business opportunities might be an easier sell than bringing in American firms, given the city’s national reputation as tough on outsiders and start-up firms.

Echoing the complaints of dozens of small business owners and economic development professionals, Olson-Urtecho bemoans Philadelphia’s real and perceived weakness for business attraction.

“They only have one person, which is Karen Randal (the city’s director of Business Attraction and Retention, within the Commerce Department) and she tries her hardest,” she said. “The Department of Commerce knows this – they know that it’s tough to get a business started here. I know people who have said, ‘You might as well start your business in another county. It’s so much less of a hassle, and then just hire people from here in the city.’ I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the lack of ability to foster entrepreneurship and help small businesses to get off the ground.”

Olson-Urtecho also recently founded the for-profit Ecolibrium Group (an outgrowth of her former nonprofit, 3-Point Consulting) which she describes as a “a social entrepreneurship” and strategic consulting firm that specializes in environmentally and socially responsible business development.

The conference had been scheduled for this coming Friday (Dec. 5) but was postponed until the 15th because of availability issues. Further details of the trade conference – location and times – will be published here when they become definite.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

From the PlanPhilly archives:

Postcard from China: http://planphilly.com/node/3797

“‘Green Economy Task Force’ on Capitol Hill” (Feb. 4, 2009): http://planphilly.com/node/7205

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