HAMMOND | Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. will admit the prospect of spending a week in China made him nervous at first.
Now home from the trip, McDermott said he fell in love with the country and left with a renewed sense of what America and Hammond have to offer.
"Some things we as Americans take for granted are things a lot of people in China would love to have every day," McDermott said. "It sort of opened my eyes to see the conditions that even millionaires live in in China."
McDermott and a delegation of city officials spent a week in China through a trip financed by the Hammond-based Sil Foundation. The group visited Beijing, Shahe City and Guangzhou.
McDermott made presentations to at least 200 potential investors about economic development opportunities in the city. Many investors asked McDermott about the federal EB-5 program, which allows foreign investors to become naturalized U.S. citizens if they commit $1 million and create 10 jobs in the U.S. within certain qualified areas.
"These are wealthy people, so for these people, $1 million and 10 jobs is not so hard," McDermott said.
"People I met were extremely wealthy, some of them were very, very wealthy. Let's say we convince 10 of them to try this EB-5 program."
Along with the presentations, McDermott signed an official Sister Cities agreement with Shahe City. The city of 130,000 is comparable to Hammond, he said.
Shahe is an industrial city known for its glass production and is located in the shadows of Beijing.
McDermott said Shahe is undergoing a project to rebuild the entire city, and because of that, the city is divided into new and old portions. Shahe has a new municipal center, a new school and several condominium projects under way.
"It's like an industrial, blue-collar town. The reason people live there is they want to get these well-paying jobs," McDermott said.
The delegation also had fun on the trip. Hammond officials played a basketball game against the Shahe City municipal team, which was broadcast to the entire province of 480,000 people.
The weather the day of the game was cold and rainy, but at least 500 kids waited to see the teams play, McDermott said. The Hammond team lost, but McDermott said the kids rooted for them.
"We embarrassed our country," McDermott said. "We lost in a sport we created. ... We made our host feel good, but I think we're all hanging our heads in shame now."
McDermott said, even before the trip, Hammond was forging relationships with China through Purdue University Calumet's international program. On the way home, a group of Chinese students was on McDermott's plane heading to Purdue Calumet for a presentation.
McDermott teaches at Purdue Calumet and always wondered what the Chinese students thought of the country or if they were comfortable living in the dorms. The trip to China eased those concerns, he said.
"When these students come to Hammond to study, the dorm they live in is probably way better than even their millionaire parents have available to them," McDermott said. "There are challenges in Hammond, but there are a lot of people that live in a lot worse conditions than we do. I think that was important for me to see."
McDermott said America is far beyond China in terms of environmental regulations. He said a haze diminishes the sun's brightness in China.
The wage gap concerned McDermott. The delegation saw a building at least three times the size of the Civic Center built for the equivalent of $15 million and was told a construction worker made $25 a day.
"I learned a lesson of a lifetime," McDermott said, "seeing things that are good for a leader to see."