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San Francisco races to clean up its act for trade summit

San Francisco’s skyline | Getty Images

It’s been a rough couple of years for San Francisco, with the city’s issues around drugs and street conditions regularly making national headlines and even used as campaign props for Republican presidential candidates.

Now, city officials are looking to November as a hard reset, as scores of world leaders and high-profile executives will descend upon the city for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, a major trade summit last held in the U.S. in 2011. 

It’s a high-wire act involving the Mayor’s Office, multiple city departments and the U.S. Department of State, with President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and top leaders from 21 member nations expected to attend. 

The city’s business community is eagerly anticipating the economic boost the conference will provide—along with the potential to burnish San Francisco’s reputation as a global business hub. 

“It’s a rare opportunity to put San Francisco atop the world stage,” said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, an association of over 300 of the Bay Area’s largest employers. “Mayor Breed, the Board of Supervisors, our business community and the entire City will pull out all the stops to ensure a great, unequivocal success.”

The city is aiming to raise $20 million to help host multiple events around the conference, including a reception at City Hall for the foreign press covering the event. Additional events that are open to the public may also be on the table, depending upon how much is raised, according to Mayor London Breed’s office. 

Biden is also planning to host a welcome reception for heads of state and delegates at the Exploratorium, said Sean Elsbernd, chief of staff to Mayor London Breed, at the Bay Area Council’s Pacific Summit on Tuesday. 

Elsbernd pitched an audience of Bay Area business leaders on donating to the effort, noting that Salesforce had given $1 million to the events fund. The city has raised roughly one-quarter of the $20 million goal so far, he said after the event. 

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Appropriations Committee also discussed setting aside $10 million for additional services that may be needed during the conference at a Wednesday meeting. That funding could be used for a variety of costs, including operations at Moscone Center—expected to be the main hub for the conference—along with police overtime, street cleaning and other costs. 

“San Francisco has never, ever hosted this many heads of state,” Elsbernd said Tuesday. “This is a big deal. We should be proud and excited.” 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, center, arrives to attend the 29th APEC Economic Leaders Meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok on Nov. 18, 2022. | Diego Azubel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The San Francisco APEC meetings are the culmination of numerous sessions over the course of the year and the capstone of what has become an important engine for global trade, said Matt Murray, the U.S. State Department’s appointed senior official for APEC. 

Founded in 1989, APEC was instrumental in the creation of international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

San Francisco is the star of the show this year, hosting Leaders’ Week, which brings together heads of state and top government officials, along with a CEO Summit to be held Nov. 15-16 at Moscone Center West, which will draw more than 1,500 business leaders from the largest companies around the Pacific Rim.

It’s almost like a three-ring circus in some ways, because you have leaders over here, ministers over there, the business community over there,” said Murray. “All with the vision [to] work and collaborate together in order to have a more prosperous, more interconnected, more innovative and more inclusive Asia-Pacific region.”

Innovation, sustainability and inclusive growth are the themes of this year’s summit, with the goals of advancing trade, investments and shared priorities along those lines, Murray said. The 21 APEC economies account for about half of all global trade and over 60% of U.S. exports, along with an estimated $1.7 trillion of direct investment in the U.S.

Partly due to Covid, planning for APEC 2023 happened on a much shorter timeline than usual. San Francisco and California made it clear that they were interested in hosting the leaders’ meetings, Murray said, and San Francisco quickly rose to the top of the list.

“San Francisco will be the perfect backdrop for a lot of the things we’re trying to do with APEC,” Murray said. “There’s only a handful of cities in the United States that have the wherewithal to host this many leaders, just in terms of hotel rooms alone.”

Outside of the formal conferences, regional leaders are hoping that APEC will help build relationships that lead to new investments and other forms of economic growth.  

In San Francisco, the potential for new growth takes on extra significance as the city faces rising retail and commercial vacancies Downtown and diminished business travel since the pandemic. 

Last month, the APEC trade ministers meeting in Detroit produced a side agreement between the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office for mutual investment and industry cooperation between Taiwan and Michigan. 

Elsbernd said that of all the things that keep him up at night about hosting APEC, his greatest concern is that “we’re going to have a summit, and great summit and then that’s it.” 

“[The mayor] wants this summit […] to spur continued discussion in the city and the region,” he said. “What are the lessons we can learn from the leaders, from the other economies […] and point back this week and say that was the inflection point, that was the pivot point?” 

APEC could also place San Francisco at the center of global dramas. 

At the Detroit meeting, member countries agreed in principle on promoting more inclusive and sustainable trade, but a joint statement that included a condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was blocked by Russia and China. 

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai expressed hope at the close of that meeting that a formal joint statement could be agreed upon at the San Francisco meetings. 

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for San Francisco, and also a tremendous opportunity for the country, to show that we are bouncing back from the pandemic and really in a place to demonstrate U.S. leadership in the region,” added Murray.

Annie Gaus can be reached at