The Lookout

Small business owners hope to see economic boost after U.S.—China summit


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The estate house from across one of the lakes on the golf course. (Photo by Ned Redway.)

Local business leaders in the Coachella Valley hope that the high-profile summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will help usher in new economic life into the region.

The leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries conducted business at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, bringing international attention to the serene Coachella desert valley. And a successful summit has the potential to have a lasting impact that’ll make overseas investors and tourists want to put their money into the region.

“The next time I go to China, I’ll have these front page headlines with Xi and Obama…and I’m going to sell that,” said Wes Ahlgren, Chief Operating Officer of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, which helps locals get foreign investments and agreements to start their own businesses.

[Related: Faces of protest: Scenes and stories from presidential summit protests]

If you have government backing, or appear to be related to government, Chinese businessmen trust you and you’re more likely to get investors, he explained. “If you’re in with the government, you’re in with business.”

Small businesses may not have seen a direct boost in sales or customers as a result of the presidential summit, but local business owners from a variety of industries say the international exposure in the long-term will be the biggest benefit of this high-profile visit.

Andy Jessup Jr., General Manager of Jessup Auto Plaza said his company doesn’t do any direct business with China since his inventory primarily consists of American models such as Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC. But he still thinks the summit will increase future economic prospects.

[Related: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping: Dreams from their fathers]

“We may not be able to track a return on investment within the weekend the presidents stay here, but I am sure the significant exposure builds a momentum of interest for future visits by families and consideration of relocation by businesses,” he said.

This meeting “brings notoriety back to the desert,” said Larry Davis, Vice President of Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, and former Chairman of the Cathedral City Chamber of Commerce. “It was called the playground of the presidents. President Ford, President Nixon, President Kennedy and President Reagan spent a lot of time here, so I think this re-emphasizes the wonderful community we have.”

Cello’s Restaurant owners Bonnie Barkley and Tom Stefernak haven’t seen the economy picking up in their industry and they expect to continue struggling through the summer months without much of a bump in business from the presidential summit. But they don’t see a downside of their region hosting the meeting.

[Related: Inside Sunnylands: Presidential summit meeting site has a rich, and secretive, history]

"I think it's exciting and it showcases our valley,” Barkley said. “ I think it’s more important that they are marketing [Sunnylands] as the White House of the west. It’s a brilliant plan,” which she hopes will help drive future tourists to her restaurant.

And that might just happen, if the projected numbers turn out to be correct.

“This [meeting] will have a big impact…we’re looking at tourism growing by the hundreds of thousands over the next five years,” Ahlgren said with a smile.

[Related: Interview with the director of the Sunnylands Center and Gardens]

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