|The cover on the binder of the thick itinerary stacked on the seat tray read: “Friendship and Trade Mission to Tsukuba, Japan and Seoul, Korea.” Just below the headline was a map of the world and the city of Irvine seal. Sitting in seat 38B on this Korean Air jumbo jet at 35,000 feet, the significance was clear. More than any other municipality in Orange County, maybe even Southern California, Irvine is and has been on the leading edge of Pacific Rim diplomacy and bridge building, particularly with Asia. As Councilmember Beth Krom noted as we boarded for the 12-hour flight, the seeds of this kinship between Irvine and the Far East were planted two decades ago when Irvine reached out to Tsukuba and the two became sister cities. Who would have known then that Irvine, with its ranching roots traceable to the era of Spanish land grants, would now be so closely linked to Japan and increasingly Korea.
Time magazine in its must-read cover story, “Why California is America’s Future,” proclaimed the huge head start the Golden State has in capitalizing on the power, the technology and appetite for products and services coming from the Far East. Irvine is smack in the middle of this tantalizing opportunity – geographically, demographically and, since November 2008, politically. Sukhee Kang, the first Korean-born mayor of a major American city, is now piloting the region and on his itinerary is an ambitious plan to open new doors in the Far East, particularly his homeland.
This trip, an eight-day, two-nation swing with city officials and county business leaders will pay tribute to Irvine’s existing partners in Japan and introduce future investors in Korea to the promise of Irvine and Orange County. It’s a bold play, but so is Kang, who sees Irvine’s economic future tied to city efforts to broaden business interest in Irvine. Historically, business development in the city and, frankly, much of the county, has taken care of itself, or been conducted through private entities like the Irvine Chamber of Commerce and the city’s largest landholder, the Irvine Co. The world-class climate, the proximity to the ocean and a lifestyle second to none has been a magnet for entrepreneurs and business owners. But the staggering blow dealt by the Great Recession has humbled local elected officials and executives alike the past two years. Record job losses, dwindling tax revenues and mounting business closures have prompted some decision makers to stop living on press clippings and start selling the county’s virtues again.
Kang is in that camp. Since election day 12 months ago, he has been saying the city has been resting on its laurels when it comes to bringing new business to the region. No more, he says quietly in the Korean Air customer lounge. He points to this trip as an example of a more aggressive push the city must make to retain and attract investment and innovation in the “new economy” that is slowly emerging from this recession. He has challenged all stakeholders inside and out of Irvine to seize the moment and be ready when the market turns, hopefully, in 2010.
“The time is right to make new friends,” says Kang, knowing full well he has the extraordinarily unique credentials to connect with Asia. He is the link between the old and new Irvine and, in reality, maybe all of Orange County.
In the days ahead, Kang’s near “rock-star status” because of his mayoral win will be on display as we tour, among other firms, the Hyundai-Kia R&D Center and Samil Pharmaceuticals Co., which has a partnership with Irvine-based Allergan. His political collateral will also be front and center during nightly receptions with government luminaries in both nations. It is a whirlwind schedule that may not produce meaningful ROI for months or even years. But Kang’s future success and that of Irvine may well be shaped by initiatives like this.
“You can’t sit and wait for things to happen,” he says, waiting in the Korean Air customer lounge. “You have to make things happen.”