Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland, left, and Lincoln High principal Patrick Erwin flank Chinese president Xi Jinping as they entered the gym during his visit to Lincoln High on Sept. 23, 2015. Drew Perine Staff photographer
Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland, left, and Lincoln High principal Patrick Erwin flank Chinese president Xi Jinping as they entered the gym during his visit to Lincoln High on Sept. 23, 2015. Drew Perine Staff photographer

Politics & Government

Back from China, Tacoma mayor says latest trade mission nurtured downtown projects

April 16, 2016 05:00 AM

UPDATED April 18, 2016 12:24 PM

To her critics, Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s latest city-funded foray to Asia was all about placating the Chinese power brokers who would build the world’s largest methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma.

“There’s obviously something in it for you,” one of the anti-methanol protesters said to Strickland during last week’s City Council meeting.

Back home, Strickland said that project simply was not on her agenda during her eight-day trip to Vietnam and China earlier this month.

“It never came up,” she said.

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Instead, as with her previous city-backed trade missions to Asia, Strickland used her time overseas to make connections with investors who are considering supporting development projects in Tacoma and to meet with government officials leading major Chinese cities.

“It’s about cultivating relationships. It’s about sending a positive message about Tacoma,” she said.

This time, she made two presentations to groups of investors who already are putting serious money in Tacoma.

One Shanghai group led by developer Chun Yang is behind a $150 million downtown hotel project. Another from the city of Wuhan is behind a $125 million plan to develop a 6.4-acre site near the University of Washington Tacoma. Both benefit from the EB-5 Visa program, which offers foreign investors a fast path to U.S. residency.

Strickland’s 2014 visit to Shanghai included meetings with the investors who later supported the hotel project, according to records The News Tribune obtained from a Public Disclosure request.

“From a position of culture and respect, it means a lot when you take the time to travel to meet someone,” she said about the updates she gave to the investment groups.

$275 million Value of Chinese-backed development projects in downtown Tacoma

Throughout her time in office, Strickland has sought to project Tacoma as an international city with an important role in global trade because of its port.

That was one of the themes of her state of the city address this year, in which she touted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September visit to Tacoma and encouraged young people to look for foreign exchange opportunities.

Earlier this month, she noticed that many people in China seemed familiar with Tacoma because of the attention that Xi’s visit generated.

The timing of her latest trip, however, gave fuel to protesters who view Strickland as supportive of a project that would bring a methanol-production facility to the port. Methanol from that facility would be shipped back to China, where it would be used to make plastics.

Northwest Innovation Works, the Chinese company behind the proposal, released a promotional video a week before Strickland’s trip in which she briefly appeared describing its potential to generate jobs.

Strickland’s critics drew a connection between the video and her trip when they addressed her at last week’s council meeting.

“You were never neutral; you were always a proponent,” one said.

I could cower in fear and let the people accusing me of something dictate my calendar, or I could keep doing the work that I’ve been doing since I’ve been mayor.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland

At the end of the meeting, Strickland told the group that her trip was meant to “bring Tacoma apartments and houses” with foreign investment.

“A lot of people have linked every trip I have taken to Asia to this methanol plant, and none of the trips I have taken to Asia have had anything to do with the methanol plant,” she told The News Tribune later in the week.

“So I could cower in fear and let the people accusing me of something dictate my calendar, or I could keep doing the work that I’ve been doing since I’ve been mayor and that is to foster international investment into a lot of important projects,” she said.

Strickland has two more trips to Asia planned for later this year, one to South Korea and another with Lincoln High School students who were invited to visit China by President Xi.

Her just-completed trip included visits to high schools in Beijing and Shanghai, two of the cities that Lincoln students might tour. She spoke with education leaders who were interested in nurturing professional exchanges for adults in addition to more student exchanges.

In Vietnam, she met with a developer and with government officials who have influence over how Vietnamese spend money abroad. Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera said the presence of the government officials indicated the developer likely would be able to follow through on his Tacoma plans.

“I thought that was very positive,” said Noguera, who traveled with Strickland.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary