Export promotion has traditionally been the purview of the federal government, which pulls the strings on some trade financing and operates U.S. Commercial Service offices in more than 75 countries.
But while the resources (and a lot of the cheerleading) come from the top, metropolitan areas are driving this vital, job-generating segment of the U.S. economy from the bottom up, according to the Brookings Institution.
The Washington think tank is partnering with JPMorgan Chase on the Global Cities Initiative, a five-year, $10 million initiative that aims to raise the dialogue about exporting, helping cities pinpoint their strongest companies, products and services to create a cohesive export plan tailored to their unique profiles.
This year’s roadshow kicked off in Atlanta March 20 and will culminate in Mexico City later this year.
Atlanta already ranks 13th among metro areas in the U.S. with $20 billion in export value, according to a 2012 Brookings study, but that’s without a focused strategy. The city must do more to consolidate its trade resources and help smaller companies get in the game, Mayor Kasim Reed said at the launch.
Calling export hesitance a “confidence issue,” the mayor said firms in Atlanta and beyond should quickly get acclimated to doing business in cities like Shanghai and Mumbai, lest the U.S. get left behind as the world’s population grows increasingly urban and its economic axis shifts more to emerging markets like Brazil, China and India.
“We’re going to shift a bit from our Fortune 500s. We already know that we do that well; we’ve got the third largest concentration of Fortune 500s. So we’re going to our medium-sized businesses and working in that space, and we’re going to have a partner who is best-in-class in guiding us in how to do this,” Mr. Reed said.
That’s why the city has begun leading trade missions overseas, including one to China last March and another to Brazil being planned for this summer, according to Mr. Reed.
The details of the Atlanta metropolitan export plan are to be fleshed out with the help of Brookings researchers, who will assess the city’s strengths and present findings to a committee comprised of representatives from relevant organizations like Invest Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Atlanta and others. The committee is to be chaired by Dwayne Meeks, a United Parcel Service Inc. executive.
Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, said the institution is working with 12 cities already, including participants from the Global Cities Initiative last year.
Crafting an export plan doesn’t necessarily mean creating a new organization, he said. It’s just making sure existing ones talk more.
“Metros are networks. The challenge is how you congeal networks and have them really punch above their weight,” he said.
The global economy is mostly a network of major metropolitan economies around the world, and that’s a good thing for export promotion efforts, leaders of the initiative said.
Even while highlighting the need to point companies to federal resources like the Ex-Im Bank and the U.S. Commercial Service, they presented cities as doers that tend to put getting things done over partisan squabbling. Mr. Katz characterized the federal government as “challenged” and called it one of the biggest threats to America’s economic future.
“I am an unabashed supporter of cities, a fan of cities, and I love being a mayor because mayors get things done,” Mr. Reed said.
Richard Daley, the former mayor of Chicago and chairman of the Global Cities Initiative, said mayors around the world, especially in emerging mega-cities of more than 10 million people, are gaining autonomy as the world’s exodus from rural areas continues to accelerate. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities.
“What is happening now is that the mayors of regions are getting both the political and economic power, and they’re the decision-makers,” Mr. Daley said, asserting that American cities aren’t competing against their domestic counterparts; they’re going up against rival metro powerhouses in emerging economies abroad.
All the more reason for cities to focus on their differentiators, Mr. Katz told Global Atlanta, and Atlanta already has an array of assets and relationships that quickly bubble to the surface.
It’s a center for global health, logistics and certain technology sectors, but the city has “soft assets” that shouldn’t be underestimated, he said.
“The legacy here of civil rights actually can have a profound effect on how you engage globally,” he said.
Citing Brookings research, he also noted that more people fly between Atlanta and Seoul, Korea, than any other overseas destination, partly thanks to a strong base of Korean businesses serving the Kia Motors plant in West Point.
That’s just one piece of Atlanta’s export picture, parts of which were brought to light in Brookings’ Export Nation report last March. Atlanta ranked 13th in export value, but services were dominant instead of traditional product categories like transportation equipment and chemicals.
Travel and tourism accounted for 19 percent of the $20 billion, making expenditures by foreign visitors during trips to the area the largest export sector for Atlanta, according to the report.