In the hallways of Lancaster City Hall, it is not uncommon these days to hear some employees talking to themselves or greeting each other in Mandarin. Every other week staff members from the economic development, planning and communications departments receive lessons in speaking the dialect with the ultimate goal of being able to converse with visiting Chinese businesspeople. It’s what Lancaster needs to do to give itself an advantage in the competitive environment of attracting new industry. While being able to speak Mandarin may not be vital to closing a deal, it’s a small thing that can be appreciated by businesspeople traveling thousands of miles to represent their companies. “We are not going to be fluent in just a couple of months,” said Luis Garibay, a redevelopment projects coordinator. “What we can do is make them more comfortable when they are so far from home.” A recent study by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. placed the Antelope Valley last out of 10 regions in the number of foreign-owned companies with 50 business establishments employing 700 workers with a payroll of $32 million. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris wants to change that. The city, for instance, is on the short list as the location for an auto manufacturing plant owned by Chinese giant BYD Co. Ltd. In the nascent stages are plans to bring in Chinese-owned warehouses. Mainland China and Hong Kong combine to rank ninth in foreign-owned and –affiliated companies in the county with 127 business establishments, according to the May 2009 study from the LAEDC and World Trade Center Association. Most of the Chinese companies are part of the wholesale trade industry, followed by transportation and warehousing. The county has 2,700 workers earning $158 million in wages at these companies, the study said. As more interest in far north Los Angeles County is shown by Chinese companies then Parris and staff members of the city will be ready to meet their representatives during visits to Southern California. Parris has been working with a private tutor for six months to learn Mandarin, while staff is taught by Beijing native Xin Xin Martin, who commutes up from Seal Beach. On a recent morning, Martin took a class that included Garibay, Vice Mayor Ron Smith and Economic Development/Redevelopment Director Vern Lawson through a lesson on how to say that Los Angeles (Luo shan ji) is 63 miles from Lancaster City Hall (shi zheng fu) and how to introduce themselves to each other. Smith knows some German, French, Spanish and Italian but finds Mandarin to be much more difficult. The effort he and the others put into learning the language will pay off, Smith said.. “I think it shows a sincere effort on the part of the city not only to learn the language but learning some of the cultural nuances in class as well,” Smith said. That the volunteer lessons make serious students out of city bureaucrats is reflective of the change in attitude brought by Parris when he took office in 2008. Risk taking and innovation is encouraged at city hall. Parris said he wants it to be an exciting place that engages the employees. “The people who are taking the class are here for the long haul,” Parris said. “They see there is a future to all of this.” That future gravitates more and more toward alternative energy. In August, eSolar opened up its 5 megawatt solar thermal demonstration project in the city limits. In the county, BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc., based in Irvine, is building a cellulosic ethanol plant; elsewhere in the Antelope Valley NextLight Renewable Power LLC will build a 230 megawatt solar generating facility. While the BYD car plant would be nice, of more interest to Parris is new battery technology the company is developing that stores energy produced by solar panels or wind turbines that could then be released into the power grid at peak use times. At a dinner earlier this year, Parris caught the attention of BYD Chief Executive Officer Wang Chuanfu by mentioning the combined output of the solar projects in the Antelope Valley. “As soon as he heard 2 gigawatts of solar power, his head jerked,” Parris recounted. Abundant sunshine is not all the region has to offer a company locating there. There’s also clean air, few environmental problems and space available to build. There are airports in Palmdale and Mojave with runways long enough to accommodate large cargo planes, and state Highway 58 is an important connector to the 5 Freeway near Bakersfield, and the 40 and 15 freeways near Barstow. And if any of those factors are vital, there may be more Mandarin heard around the halls of Lancaster shi zheng fu.