Mayor Sharon Wolcott’s 2017 State of the City Address Wednesday afternoon focused on recent watershed developments in education and transportation.
Just below big-ticket items like Ottawa University Arizona, the West-MEC Northwest campus and the completion of the Bell/Grand interchange is the city’s new moniker for its business strategy — dubbed Surprise International.
For several years, the city has courted foreign companies. Economic Development Director Jeanine Jerkovic said Surprise International was formalized more than a year ago when the department began more deeply understanding how to interact with strategic international markets through its Toronto relationships.
“We began to better understand our clients and their needs first hand and build trust and confidence, which makes all the difference in the world, but it took about a year to get proficient at it and to fine-tune our focus. Our focus has basically evolved to a three-pronged approach; we focus on innovation partnerships, business expansion, and real estate investment,” Ms. Jerkovic said.
As part of the Surprise International initiative Mayor Wolcott announced the creation of a cross-border task force to study innovations in the $100 billion health tourism industry and to explore whether Surprise can play a role in “setting a new standard in medical tourism delivery.” The task force will be comprised of Canadian and Arizonan industry partners, and will be co-chaired by Ms. Jerkovic.
Surprise International is not just about Canada. But Canada is a primary focus and familiar ground for Ms. Jerkovic, who worked for the local Canadian Consulate earlier this decade.
“It also becomes a porthole through Toronto. A lot of European innovators are looking for a foothold in the United States and they come through Canada,” Mayor Wolcott said after her address. “We’re working through the business contact we’ve made of the last few year by going up to Toronto every couple weeks. We’ve made over 100 contacts.”
The city has some attractive features for international companies. Southwest Surprise includes a foreign trade zone and a railplex which gives international companies attractive rail and tax savings.
The AZ TechCelerator in the old City Hall offers a global concierge program. Ms. Jerkovic said four international companies are involved now.
Tellspec from Toronto and Omega Storage from Romania are applying and in the middle of competitive Arizona-based grant processes through Invest Southwest and the Arizona Commerce Authority.
Valtx from Canada and Glymt from Portugal are also at the TechCelerator.
“The city program is more comprehensive than it was even just a year ago, which gives us a flexibility to handle a greater range of opportunities than ever before. We have learned more effectively how to serve the international marketplace through our experiences and relationships developed over the past two years,” Ms. Jerkovic said.
For Surprise, the foreign focus also represents a conscious shift away from luring most of the American companies looking to locate in the Valley.
Right now landing these big fish is more difficult for the growing West Valley cities. And there are only so many fish in that pool.
“We’re not satisfied to just sit here in the Valley with 13 other West Valley cities and fight for the same crumbs that everybody else is,” Mayor Wolcott said. “We are going to go out and build our own market. I think it’s an opportunity more should take advantage of. But, hey, as long as we’re first in the market I’m happy.”
In the world of economic development, landing companies like IRIS USA and Cobalt Medical can take years of relationship building. More often than not, all those trips fail to yield something.
Ms. Jerkovic said it is a challenge to predict the timing on anything, but the conditions in place are better than at any time in recent years.
“I will say that economic development is actively prioritizing our prospects and turning our focus to championing the great opportunities that could be announced in the next year or two,” she said. “I can say with confidence that the Surprise pipeline of international business investment interest and activity has never been higher. I believe we have created enormous confidence in the Surprise and Greater Phoenix market overall, which will only result in a continued uptick in international interest, visitations and expansions”