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Ed Lee's Brazilian Flacks 

Wednesday, Apr 6 2016
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San Francisco is not hurting for startups or tech jobs by anyone's count, but that didn't stop Mayor Ed Lee from putting on his traveling salesman hat last month and jetting off to South and Central America in search of new business.

On a junket funded by PG&E and several big-name firms with stakes in international commerce, the mayor and his economic point man, Todd Rufo, sold the city as a friendly place for Brazilian tech firms while in São Paulo. In Rio, which is hosting this year's Summer Olympics, Lee lent advice on hosting world-class sporting events — no word on whether he took any Super Bowl 50 statues with him as a civic gift — and extolled the city's ample tax breaks for businesses.

According to a rough translation from an article published in the local press, Rufo noted how San Francisco has made recent investments in transit infrastructure and "housing options for newcomers" ("opcoes de moradias para os recem-chegados," in the words of Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil's biggest newspaper). Already, the trip has borne fruit: a Brazilian venture capital firm is opening an office in San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Lee's partner in the "Latin SF" trade initiative and partner in the trip. An "ag industry company" is also "analyzing" opening an "innovation office" in the city. (When pressed, the chamber did not name names.)

Word that the city has well-funded transit and housing aplenty would be welcome news to most San Franciscans suffering through record rents and a deteriorating BART. Less welcome is the suspicion that the San Francisco Center for Economic Development — the offshoot of the Chamber of Commerce, the private partner in Lee's "public private partnership" that sponsors Latin SF and similar trade efforts like China SF — is also selling tech newcomers on the Mission District, from where almost 10,000 Latinos have been displaced in the last decade.

Fueling this mistrust is a booklet put together a few years ago by the Center for Economic Development that singled out certain neighborhoods — including the increasingly unaffordable Mission, as well as the Dogpatch — as attractive places for tech companies. (Direct quote: "Inner Mission is an ethnically diverse neighborhood that evokes a strong sense of community between the young professionals that are attracted there to live, work, and be hipster.")

It's not clear if this playbook, which 48 Hills pounced on as proof the mayor is continuing to sell us out, was used during the Latin SF junket to Brazil. Gloria Chan, spokeswoman for Lee's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says Lee didn't use the playbook and is definitely not trying to bring tech companies to the Mission. (Latin SF did not return a call for comment.)

One thing is clear: The Latinos currently living in the Mission were not in on any of the above action, and Lee's global search for more startups in a time of local crisis is uniquely tone-deaf.

"It's one of the strangest things I've seen since I've been on the Board of Supervisors," says Supervisor David Campos, who represents the area. "How can you be interested in reaching out to businesses in Latin America when you're not reaching out to Latin American businesses in your own city? It makes no sense."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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