China’s smaller cities struggle for identities

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:09 pm

The second Dala Te International Horse Culture Festival was held in August. Why mention it? In a way, it symbolizes a new trend in China. As the world turns, governments change and China’s economy slows to sub-8-percent growth, its new cities and middle class are seeking distinctions and entertainment.

Dala Te (Te means Banner, which is the Mongolian equivalent of a county) is an unremarkable town straddling scrublands and desert. Ubiquitous bland mid-rise buildings surround oversized roads. New drivers, in their equally new cars, jockey their vehicles like horses; no one seems to pay much attention to speed or lanes.

Arriving, the air is fresh, the sky is blue and the sun is strong. A steady wind brings some welcome relief along with a little dust and pollen. Only 20 minutes from Baotou airport (Baotou is Inner Mongolia’s biggest city) the city’s 150,000 residents actually belong to the city of Ordos.

A number of Chinese five-star hotels line the main street, spaced between the Tax Bureau and a number of other government edifices. Think Holiday Inns rather than the Ritz, all new with comfortable beds and no smoking signs, which everyone ignores. Take away the buildings and you could be anywhere in west Texas, 50 years ago. People are friendly and move at their own pace. Chubby children and their adoring grandparents move slowly along the strings of small storefronts, asking how much for things that catch their eye. Many of the stores sell Mongolian Dried Beef, barley tea and milk candies; offering tastes to those who look promising.

Two years ago, the local government was convinced to invest in a scheme to put Dala Te on the map, by making it the center for horse culture, not just any horse culture, but one which would combine Mongolian and international horse cultures. The goal, sharpen the areas appeal to tourists, while incubating industries devoted to horses. The centerpiece of this effort, 56 horses from all over the world were brought to a local farm, as part of a breeding program. The farm itself would make a Kentucky Colonel envious, endless straight-line white crossed pole fences, green grass paddocks, beautiful indoor/outdoor riding rinks and gracious barns, created by the Maryland architect who designed the London Olympic riding ring. The unique touch was the Chinese reception halls and courtyards, which offered dining, resting and accommodation areas for members and their guests.

This is the local governments stab at greatness and visibility. In a country China’s size, 150,000 people do not even warrant a mention. Dala Te, like the rest of China’s new and expanding cities, is looking for the magic formula that will vault them from obscurity to fame.

For three days, we watched horses and riders from all over the world do dressage, jumping, dancing and barrel racing. Cowboy hats, jeans, boots and, after a torrential downpour, mud, were the uniform of the day. Like any county rodeo, children smiled and people cheered for the local favorites. The only difference, this was only the second time most of the locals had ever seen anything like this. For the couple hundred foreigners, who had come to sample the local barbecue, white lightening and hospitality, it was a strange juxtaposition of things they knew, in a place they did not.

Dala Te has three months of summer and one month of spring and fall, the rest is winter. The plan is to attract as many people as possible during the summer and then try to extend the season using spa that use the area’s natural geothermal water.

Still wondering why this is a topic for a business article?

Ordos and Baotou both are boomtowns, which are benefitting from their mineral and energy resources, central government policies aimed at improving local economic conditions and stemming the tide of desertification, and adventuresome city dwellers looking for fresh air and new experiences. They are currently using all of their resources to try to make efforts like this work. There have been some notable question marks, including a town in Ordos built for 1 million people that is still waiting for residents.

Will Dala Te succeed? Hard to say. The goals are big but the strategy and implementation need work. Examples: the very nice rodeo stadium, built without a drainage system. The stadium sits empty for most of the year; it could be used for motocross, soccer, music festivals and other events.

These are not isolated examples. Many of China’s smaller cities are approaching their economic development in the same way, looking for a hook that differentiates them, and creates better economic opportunities, but unfortunately, they often stumble on their lack of experience.

What does this mean?

Example: the Wisconsin Dells created family friendly water parks catering to tourists; to extend their seasons, revenues and utilization, they started enclosing the parks and competing in terms of amenities and services. Year-round activities, bigger slides, timeshares and spa service became the growth engine for what is now a national and international phenomenon. Capitalizing on locations, which were far enough from feeder cities to encourage overnight stays, offerings, which allowed children and adults to relax together and apart, at prices which were far below the “Disney trip,” they became local economic development engines.

The point is, the opportunity exists to adjust these and other entertainment models to the needs and tastes of China’s growing middle classes. The question is, can you do it?

Einar Tangen, formerly from Milwaukee, now lives and works in Beijing, China. He is an adviser to Heilongjiang Province, Hebei Province QEDTZ, China.org.cn, China International Publishing Group, Beijing Baotong and DGI DESIGN. He is also a weekly public affairs commentator for CCTV News’ Dialogue and the author of “The Kunshan Way,” an economic development history of China’s leading county level city. While in Milwaukee, he was a partner at Jackson, Morgan and Tangen, president of E-Tech and a senior vice president at Stifel Nicolaus. He chaired various boards in Milwaukee and was a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. Readers who would like to submit questions or suggest areas of interest can send an e-mail to steve.jagler@biztimes.com.

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