Sister Cities and Trade Missions: What’s the Point?

By: Tom Woodhall

Chicago and Toronto are two cities with a strikingly large number of similarities. Geographically, both are located on a great lake, with rivers working their way back from shore to the suburbs. Both are cities composed of diverse neighbourhoods, with architecture and tenor changing as one travels block to block. But most importantly, the cities share a common creation story. A fortuitous combination of crossroads, where railroads met ports, leading to the development of banking and trading centres created out of swamps. If ever two cities were to be confused as sisters, Chicago and Toronto are as close to the Olsen twins as you’ll find outside of a Full House reunion.

Rob Ford. Living large. Photo: National Post

Recently, City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, accompanied by staff, City Councillors, businessmen and women, and a small retinue of his beloved journalists traveled to Chicago to reaffirm our sisterly relationship and drum up business. While these sorts of trips can often be turned into junkets, where subsidized or taxpayer-supported travel leads to a nice little vacation, Mayor Ford has indicated that (for at least some of the attendees) this trip was not going to cost the City a thing. Ignoring any actual or implied costs, it’s important to ask why bother worrying about other cities, when Toronto has plenty of issues to deal with at home.

Often trade missions are envisioned as high-ranking federal ministers, meeting their counterparts in foreign governments and signing deals to open up trade, drop tariffs or quotas, and increase the pace of globalization and investment. And while American Mayors might have more authority over some portfolios than their Canadian counterparts, neither municipal government has any control over international relationships, global commerce, or taxation at the border. This leaves two main goals for a city-to-city trade mission, neither of which was particularly well articulated by Mayor Ford. Dogged by controversy, questions were not asked about whether this trip was to learn ‘best practices’ or to facilitate introductions.

The concept of a ‘best practices’ field trip is not unheard of for municipal politicians. The C40 group of cities, of which former Mayor David Miller chaired for a period, often sought to demonstrate to its members what individual municipalities were doing to tackle climate change, literally in their own backyard. Chicago has much to offer in this regard. The city recently privatized and sold off its parking authority to plug a budget hole. Its waterfront train yards have been rehabilitated and turned into one of the finest urban parks in the world. Toronto is working through these very growing pains, and surely could stand to learn some lessons from our big sister. However Mayor Ford failed to outline any specific lessons learned, any advice gathered, nor even any meetings with the movers and shakers who led these initiatives. For these ‘best practices’ trips to be effective, it is key to bring along front line employees, the bureaucrats who will be crafting and implementing policies, so they can interact directly with their counterparts. The devil is in the details, and face to face meetings are the best way to learn about the pitfalls. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that many were invited. The Mayor’s dogged dedication to keep the cost of the trip off the backs of ratepayers probably put most municipal employees out of financial striking distance of a self-funded work trip. It’s worrisome that such a wonderful opportunity to learn some lessons was squandered.

Lest we forget: football

The second type of trip did seem to occur however, where making handshakes, introductions, and swapping business cards is the end goal. This is not at all surprising, given the Mayor’s penchant for handing out gold-leafed business cards wherever he goes. The fact that the family business, Deco Labels & Tags, has offices in Chicago couldn’t have hurt in opening doors to local businesses. While business leaders are free to fly abroad to seek out new relationships and opportunities, bringing the Mayor adds cachet. On first read, getting a half hour meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, might seem like a slight, rather than a personal guided architectural boat tour, but the true reason for the trip is to get a whole bunch of people in a room where the actual work can get done. The Mayor isn’t there to do much more then wax poetic about Toronto’s merits, serving as the draw that brings out the landlords, the manufacturers, the shippers, and the traders. Suppliers can meet customers, and businesses looking to expand can find out, first hand, how easy or difficult it can be to set up a new branch in a growing metropolis.

The full benefits of our sisterly relationship, no more formal than a single piece of paper with a pair of signatures, will take time to show. But while an opportunity might have been missed for Toronto to learn from Chicago’s experience, hopefully the time was well spent making connections that would allow both cities to grow together.

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