Thursday, Jan. 13, 2000
Staff writer KOBE -- The continuing saga of Kobe airport enters its next phase later this month as citizens opposed to the project begin a campaign to recall the mayor, and foreign firms step up pressure to be included in construction work. For nearly a year following the December 1998 rejection of a plebiscite proposed by the Kobe Municipal Assembly, airport opponents have been planning a campaign to recall Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama, who has strongly supported the airport. Opponents formed an exploratory committee last autumn and will officially inaugurate the group on Jan. 22. "It will be a tough campaign," said Tomio Awahara, a Kobe city councilman long opposed to the airport. "Nearly 390,000 signatures, one-third of the eligible voters, are needed to force a new election." Tomizu Takata, a committee member, said the actual petition drive would begin at the end of March and last for one month. "Unlike the plebiscite proposal, if we get the required number of signatures, City Hall will not be able to block us. An election could be held in late July or early August," he said. While antiairport activists are trying to remove the mayor, foreign construction firms are seeking a piece of the 310 billion yen project before it advances too far. On Feb. 1, Sasayama will publicly explain the project to the foreign community for the first time. Several foreign firms, including the giant American firm Bechtel, are interested in the project. Bechtel officials visited Kobe last year to explore a joint venture with a Japanese construction firm. In December, representatives from American construction and design firms, not including Bechtel, visited Kobe and Osaka officials and expressed an interest in participating in public works projects. Meanwhile, efforts by South Korea recently led to a breakthrough in simplifying the requirements for construction firms interested in Kobe projects. In response to complaints by the South Korean Embassy that the number of requirements that first need to be met by firms wishing to bid for local public works projects was excessive, Kobe announced earlier this month that the number would be reduced. "We were surprised at the decision as well," embassy official Kim Young Moo said. "We pointed out to Construction Ministry and Kobe officials that in the General Procurements Agreements of the World Trade Organization, signed in 1996, Japan agreed to lower the minimum number of qualifications on firms wishing to bid for central government projects to 1,250 different items," Kim said. "Kobe had 1,500 different qualifications before they agreed to lower the bar." Kobe officials said that, while they agreed to simplify the bid requirements, there were technology issues that needed to be taken into account as well. "Just because foreign firms might now meet the number of bid requirements doesn't mean they will stand a better chance of participating," a Kobe official involved in the airport project said on condition of anonymity. "Kobe airport requires special expertise many may not have." U.S. officials, recalling the struggles over participation in the construction of Kansai International Airport, say extensive U.S. participation in the building of Kobe airport is unlikely, although there are many opportunities for suppliers. "Bechtel may be allowed in as a joint venture partner as a symbolic gesture," said one U.S. official in Osaka. "But the real potential is with U.S. suppliers."