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Mayor Kenney once derided city trade missions. Now he’s a believer.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says "I was wrong" about utility of mayoral overseas trade missions.

Mayor Jim Kenney met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan at the Eagles Jaguar game in London on Oct. 28, 2018.
Mayor Jim Kenney met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan at the Eagles Jaguar game in London on Oct. 28, 2018.Read moreJed Leicester (custom credit) / NFL

When Michael Nutter was mayor, he traveled abroad on city business at least nine times — all in his second term — to spots including China, England, France, and Panama.

Then-Councilman Jim Kenney often criticized Nutter for his far-flung trips. But as mayor, Kenney now sees such missions in a different light.

In the first three years of his administration, records show, the mayor and his aides have billed Philadelphia taxpayers nearly $90,000 for four trade missions. Kenney himself has visited Iceland, Canada, Ireland, and England; aides have also gone to China, South Korea and Germany.

“I wasn’t mayor when I [criticized Nutter] — and I happened to be wrong,” Kenney said. “There is a need for the mayor to be present. For some companies, it’s a matter of respect.”

It can be difficult to assess the effectiveness of such trips, as businesses decide to invest in cities for a variety of reasons.

Two foreign businesses opened operations in Philadelphia after trade missions by the Kenney administration. One is German health-care software company EDI Healthcare Inc. and the other is a China-based manufacturer, Phomi MCM, that makes lightweight building materials that look like stone, steel, and other products. Administration officials say they have dozens of “strong potential leads” off the visits.

Enticing foreign firms to expand in Philadelphia is “a long game,” said Sylvie Gallier Howard, first deputy commerce director. “It’s not like it happens overnight.”

When Nutter was mayor, he said much the same when he traveled to Asia, Europe, and Central America, noting that Philadelphia needed to compete on the global stage. His predecessor, John F. Street, did not go on any trade missions, though his staff did.

The Kenney administration didn’t have a list of businesses that moved to Philadelphia as a result of Nutter’s missions. The former mayor did not respond to a request for comment.

Kenney dipped his toes into foreign travel when he went to Iceland in 2017 as part of the inaugural Icelandair flight from Philadelphia to Reykjavik. As far as official trade missions, Kenney only went to Canada in July and then Ireland and the United Kingdom in October. He sent a handful of aides on the first two missions — Germany, France and Portugal in 2016, and China and South Korea in 2017.

The city would not let a reporter view the receipts and reimbursement forms without paying $500 for the records to have redacted any personal identifying information — a decision the Inquirer and Daily News are appealing.

Instead, it offered a spreadsheet with a summary of the expenses it said were incurred. That showed that the 2016 Europe trip for four aides cost taxpayers $18,367, with most of the expense for transportation costs, and lodging at a Hilton hotel in Frankfurt and a Kempinski hotel in Berlin. During that eight-day trip, city officials met with EDI Healthcare and 19 undisclosed companies they said were interested in opening offices in Philadelphia; participated in two international business development seminars; and studied German workforce-development programs.

During the 2017 China and South Korea trip, which cost taxpayers $19,210 according to the summary, five city aides met with Phomi MCM and 19 other companies the city said were interested in Philadelphia. They also visited three companies that already have locations in both China and Philadelphia — Wuxi AppTec, Classic Cake, and Bassett’s Ice Cream. The Philadelphia team also participated in eight conferences with economic development groups during the nearly three-week trip.

The Canada mission cost $18,508, with lodging making up half the cost. Staffers who went for five days filed between $300 and $500 in meal expenses, city officials said.

Kenney, who was only in the Québec City portion of the trip for a total of three days, claimed $52 worth of expenses for food. There, Kenney and officials met with 14 undisclosed companies and visited Bentley Systems, which has offices in Philadelphia and Québec. Kenney also met with Québec City Mayor Regis Labeaume to discuss immigration, infrastructure, tourism and gun violence.

The 10-day Ireland and U.K. excursion was the costliest. Kenney and five aides charged taxpayers $32,666, with about $3,000 so far going toward food (not all receipts have been filed for reimbursement). The delegation met with more than 40 businesses interested in locating operations in Philadelphia. Kenney said he pitched them on “how inexpensive and accessible Philadelphia is compared to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C.”

The group also visited seven businesses that have existing offices in Philadelphia, including Dublin’s Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Key Travel, and Kieran Timberlake. Those “retention visits,” as the Commerce Department calls them, are as important as the outreach to new markets, said Lauren Swartz, the city’s senior director of international business.

London-based Key Travel, for example, opened an office Philadelphia in 2013 with just two people and has since grown to 65.

As a bonus on the U.K. trip, the mayor and his girlfriend, Letty Santarelli, were able to watch the Eagles-Jaguars game at Wembley Stadium in London from box seats paid by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose funding comes almost exclusively from visitors paying the city hotel tax. (Two of Kenney’s deputies plus another guest also went to the game. The total cost for the five tickets: $1,503.)

Kenney said that while Santarelli accompanied him to Ireland and Britain, taxpayers did not foot her bill. “We paid for everything for her,” he said.

The mayor said he and the city officials were out of the hotel before 8 a.m. every day, with a packed schedule of meetings. “It wasn’t a vacation,” he said.

At the Eagles game, Kenney met with London Mayor Sadiq Aman Khan. The two mayors share similar progressive political and policy views on immigration and other matters.

In addition to the travel, taxpayers also paid $3,266 for gifts to the dignitaries visited abroad, including paperweights with the city seal, leather coasters, and Eagles jerseys.

During both the Nutter and Kenney administrations, city officials have used a fund kept by Select Greater Philadelphia, an economic-development branch of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, for travel. That money, however, is taxpayer money. The city provides about $200,000 a year to Select, of which about $35,000 is budgeted for international missions.

Kenney said spending taxpayer money on trade missions is a good investment because getting companies to expand here grows the city’s tax base.

Swartz, of the Commerce Department, said that smaller cities, such as Boston and Wichita, have been traveling overseas too, competing for the same business Philadelphia is trying to recruit.

“We have got to go and open these doors, or the world will leave us behind,” Swartz said.