Mayor Jo Byung-don of Icheon City has been trying to set the foundation for a self-sufficient city by attracting 252 new companies to the city and moving ahead with the goal of establishing 20 new small-scale industrial complexes for job creation. Constructions of a double-track railway and a freeway connecting Seongnam City(neighboring city of Seoul) will be completed in two years. The Jungbu Inland Railway will be put into service in 2016 to link Icheon with Mungyeong, thus significantly improving the traffic and residential environments. What follows are excerpts from an interview with Mayor Jo.
It has already been three years since your inauguration as mayor of Icheon City. Please give a brief explanation regarding your past projects and accomplishments.
My policy focus has been on making the city self-sufficient. In order for a city to be self-contained, the population has to reach at least 300,000. All daily living elements, including education, industry, healthcare, welfare, and culture, can create a virtuous cycle only when this number is met. This is why I have tried to increase the population and add creativity and cultural diversity, in order to turn it into a leading city in which the people living there can enjoy a happy life.
I have approached this goal from five perspectives. First of all, city hall is striving to create decent jobs and provide better living spaces. At the same time, it is improving its educational environment and developing the city’s tourism resources. I believe that my goal will be attained if welfare and cultural elements for the public are added to such efforts.
You have just passed the halfway point in your tenure. Please tell our readers about how much of your blueprint for the city has been realized and what specific projects you now have in mind.
We are setting the foundation to become a self-sufficient city in leaps and bounds. Housing site development projects in the Jungri and Majang Districts are progressing as scheduled, with construction work slated to begin next year and this year, respectively. Approximately 2,000 new homes will be built in the Jeungpo District, making it home to the largest number of apartments in Icheon. City hall has been moving ahead with establishing 20 new small-scale industrial complexes in order to create new jobs. Three of these are completed, with a further 10 currently under construction. As a result, the city could house more than 160 new companies in the past three years. During my six years in office, the number of companies located in Icheon City has increased by 252, or 43%.
To provide a better educational environment, we established a comprehensive plan back in 2008 and have pursued its goals step-by-step ever since. The college entrance rate has increased by 35%, while honor middle school students’ entry into high schools in Icheon has more than doubled. Furthermore, various investment programs are underway to build libraries and dormitories, etc.
In regards to the development of tourism resources, we have built a 400,000m2-wide pottery village and an agricultural theme park so visitors can see and experience farming and agriculture. Furthermore, we have attracted the largest premium outlet in Korea and the biggest five-star hotel in Gyeonggi Province. In addition, a number of tourist sites are also being developed.
A general hospital with 300 beds, something long desired by citizens, is scheduled to be completed soon, while numerous sports parks have been created so as to allow people to easily enjoy everyday sports activities. A 1,200 seat art hall was recently opened, with an eight-screen multiplex theater scheduled to open next year.
Last year, Icheon City won the highest prize at the Korea Local Government Fair. What is the meaning and significance of this award?
The Korea Local Government Fair is attended by roughly 250 local governments and self-governing bodies. Prizes are only awarded to seven of them, and therefore the value of this award is significant. Icheon won the Prime Ministerial award last year, building on its high scores in the agriculture and tourism, specialty agricultural goods, business environment improvement, and environmental management segments. Our accession to UNESCO Creative Cities, joint Icheon brand marketing, the Metropolitan Incineration Plant, and incentives for eco-friendly companies all played their part in the award.
There is no doubt that the Icheon Ceramic Festival is one of the most famous events of its kind. Please tell our readers more about this cultural and tourism event, as well as what the city has been doing to further raise the international standing of such festivities?
Ceramics produced in Icheon and the festival have helped create a well-known brand that is representative of the city. UNESCO headquarters noted the city’s excellent cultural infrastructure and the priceless tradition of its ceramics industry, as well as the festival itself, when selecting Icheon in 2010 as the first UNESCO Creative City in Korea.
Once the Ceramics Art Village is completed in 2015, Icheon will boast the world’s best pottery industry infrastructure. As a result, the festival is expected to become even more famous, building on the Creative City network and new promotion marketing campaigns.
Rice has long been one of the symbols of Icheon. Sales of Icheon Rice, also known by the brand name Imgeumnimpyo, have been brisk for years. What is the city government doing to promote the product overseas?
Many organizations, such as the Korea Management Association, evaluate local brands each year. Icheon Rice has never failed to take the top prize in these assessments. This product is exported to many countries, including the United States, Canada, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. This is because Icheon City has paid special attention to the management of specialty brands by means of an agency dedicated to this purpose. Furthermore, the agency has hosted the annual Rice Culture Festival in order to appeal to an increasing number of locals and foreigners alike. It has been a great boon to the overseas marketing of the Icheon Rice brand.
Exchange with foreign cities carries great importance these days in terms of globalization. What is the current status and outcome of Icheon’s efforts in this context, and what is its’ long-term strategy regarding attracting foreign investment and inter-city cooperation?
We are making good use of the UNESCO Creative City network in that aspect, and are engaged in mutual exchange activities with 34 cities in 19 countries worldwide.
In addition, we are planning on cooperative relations with Santa Fe, another UNESCO Creative City, and large-scale ceramic marketing exhibitions in LA. Recently, municipal officials visited Limoges in France and Faenza in Italy in preparation for joint exhibitions with these European countries. In regards to attracting foreign investment, Icheon City has organized a task force team with the Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the Korea Electric Power Corporation, providing various forms of administrative assistance. City hall helps prospective foreign investors purchase land in the city in compliance with the Foreign Investment Promotion Act, as well as offers subsidies for infrastructure construction.
What infrastructure is the city working on to enhance urban competitiveness and what support measures is it providing for industrial and business activities?
Icheon has put top priority on measures to help business activities. City hall has its own division dedicated to this end, with all grade-seven and higher officials working closely with local firms; listening to their voices and dealing with over 1,000 requests every year. The small-scale industrial complexes have guaranteed efficient corporate activities for small and mid-size enterprises by means of systematic management support. The city will continue to make full-scale efforts for corporate and investment attraction and job creation. Companies wishing to relocate to Icheon will be able to receive every administrative service they require.
Please end by talking about the attractions that are unique to Icheon, so that its citizens, entrepreneurs at home and overseas, and tourists can get a better grasp of the city.
At present, the population of Icheon is approximately 210,000. Though a small city, it is full of vigor and vitality, as well as things to see and enjoy. Examples include the Cornus Fruit Festival held in early spring, as well as festivities related to peaches, ceramics and rice. Furthermore, Icheon is home to Korea’s largest ceramics industrial complex. Icheon Rice, which has topped national brand evaluations for seven years, is readily available at local restaurants, as well as there being an abundance of feel-good spas. Meanwhile, the Icheon Farming Village 'Nadeuri’ offers hands-on farming experience to tourists at 25 sites in the city. Also, citizens can enjoy various hobbies and cultural activities at education centers, while the city’s three large libraries and 17 neighborhood libraries have helped to create numerous recreational programs. Furthermore, the Yeongdong Expressway and Jungbu Expressway intersect each other in the downtown area, with both of them accessible within a 15-minute drive from anywhere in the city. In 2015, the double-track railway and freeway leading to Seongnam City will be completed, allowing citizens to reach Seoul within 30 minutes. Icheon, a creative garden city aiming to become a self-sufficient region with a population of 350,000, is constantly striving to become the best residential area in the metropolitan area.