Mayor Lee strives for investments in San Francisco with strong pan-Asian ties

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee held a roundtable discussion at City Hall with members of the Asian and Asian American media on Jan. 12.

Lee primarily spoke about his hopes that future investments in the city will lead to job creation and economic development — a prime campaign promise from the election, and a point he focused on while serving as interim mayor last year. Many of his plans focused on the private and corporate investment of capital and ideas.

“I think we can unite all of the Board (of Supervisors) on many of the ideas that we have,” said Lee. With government funds “drying up,” the board has recognized “that San Francisco really needs to be innovative about our economics.”

“We have to depend a lot on ourselves to come up with the funds … it’s something that has been very true within my own Chinese community,” he said.

Lee furthered his connection to the community decades ago when — as a managing attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, in co-representing minority workers — he successfully sued the city’s fire department for discrimination in 1989.

The mayor also draws support from Rose Pak, who has been described as a San Francisco Chinatown powerbroker. Pak pledged her support for Lee and was instrumental to his election last November and appointment in January last year, according to a profile by The New York Times.

The roundtable took place following Lee’s announcement earlier that morning of the Housing Trust Fund Working Group. The working group is tasked with designing a ballot measure that would create a permanent source of revenue to fund the creation of affordable housing for low and moderate income and middle-class households in San Francisco.

The group, he said, will encompass a full spectrum of real-estate developers, affordable housing advocates and property lenders who will discuss with both Lee and the board on how best to establish a permanent trust fund to create and maintain affordable housing.

Lee said he welcomes private and corporate sources of funds to maintain such future projects, alluding to the $1.5 million matching fund the Benioff family contributed to start the “Home for the Holidays Initiative” last December to house homeless families.

According to the city, Marc and Lynne Benioff approached the mayor’s office seeking for a way to house the city’s homeless and pledged the funds to help subsidize rent through funds dispersed from their Salesforce.com Foundation.

The mayor said he was aggressively inviting outside investors — including businesses from around the world, particularly Asia — to work with and help San Francisco.

The mayor said the ChinaSF program, under the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, is working to attract more Chinese investors to San Francisco and to maintain their economic success.

Lee said he looked forward to incorporating foreign talents and expertise that will benefit the city and the rest of the nation. He expressed interest in inviting Chinese rail companies to help with California’s own high-speed rail systems. The mayor said the ChinaSF program will help to attract such companies and maintain ties with firms to nurture a healthy presence in North America.

Lee hopes to visit China in late March or early April, after the Chinese election season ends. He also said he wished to visit Japan. Lee cited the city’s relationship with the nation both for business and relief efforts for last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

Lee also acknowledged the historical significance to Asian Americans and people living in Asia, of his being San Francisco’s first elected Chinese American mayor.

“(The people in China) also know the bad parts of our history, where we were discriminated against, where people couldn’t get out of Chinatown, where people had to seek refuge. They know all that history, but that makes it all even more special,” he said. “I will enjoy the opportunity to really cement a stronger relationship with all parts of China.”

Lee also said he wished to do the same with the rest of Asia.

While Lee did not mention any specific plans for local preservation of historic or cultural businesses, he is trying to re-establish the garment industry of San Francisco and pushing to promote local businesses internationally.

“I’m pushing very hard on this program called ‘SF Made,’” said Lee. “If you’re designing a (particular craft) in Japantown, I would like to put them under the rubric of ‘SF Made’ and give them a very positive branding.”

Lee said he wants to take locally made brands abroad with him to promote and, in turn, attract products from abroad to the city.

“It’s exciting to be a Chinese American mayor … Our city is really an international city.”

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