A DeKalb County commissioner on June 30 launched a fresh effort to recruit foreign companies to the county, particularly by exploiting its competitive edge in public health.

Larry Johnson of District Three sought advice from leaders of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, Georgia State University and local Brazilian and Turkish chambers of commerce on attracting investment and preparing DeKalb companies to do business abroad.

The Thursday meeting was the first step in plans to put on a half-day global business summit in the fall to jump-start the county’s international economic development efforts.

With 159 countries represented in its school system and world-renowned health assets like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University, DeKalb already has the right ingredients to court companies, Mr. Johnson said.

But to date the county hasn’t clearly marketed its advantages and diversity to potential partners around the world, said Mr. Johnson, whose district includes south Decatur and parts of east Atlanta.

“You forget the assets because you’re so focused on the here and now, but we’ve got to use (them),” he told GlobalAtlanta.

The county must make the case that global partnerships will create “spillover benefits” by creating jobs and fostering the sharing of new technologies and practices, Tamer Cavusgil, executive director of Georgia State’s Center for International Business Education and Research, said at the meeting.

The effort should also focus on equipping small and medium-sized enterprises to trade with emerging markets like Dr. Cavusgil’s native Turkey. That will help local companies stay sharp in an increasingly competitive global economy, he said.

“There’s a new breed of young entrepreneurs who have no fear in their eyes,” Dr. Cavusgil said. “They go global almost from inception, and they’re here playing in our backyard.”

Dr. Cavusgil also made clear that DeKalb should make clearer strides to include foreign bidders on procurement projects.

The county is in the midst of a five-year, $1.4 billion plan to upgrade its water and sewer systems, Kelvin Walton, the county’s chief procurement officer, said at the meeting.

Wayne Lord, president of the World Affairs Council, suggested that the county begin its outreach by taking stock of its advantages, starting with some of the “most powerful public health structures on Earth,” like the CDC, the Carter Center and Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

“I always say, play to your strengths,” Dr. Lord said.

It has been tough to build momentum without a big city solely carrying DeKalb’s banner, Mr. Johnson said. Although the county of more than 730,000 people can build on metro Atlanta’s reputation, about 80 percent of its land is unincorporated.

The commissioner listened intently while attendees like Tarik Celik of the Istanbul Center and Fabiana Di Pietro from the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast shared their advice. He wrote notes with a black pen stamped with a silver map of the world.

Mr. Johnson’s interest in international affairs has risen over the past few years as he has experienced more of the world. He went to Italy with the United Way to observe educational methods and this year traveled to South Africa to train government officials. He later met in Atlanta with leaders from Angola and the Bahamas.

When Atlanta hosted ambassadors from more than 30 countries in late 2010, he mentioned to Dr. Lord, a DeKalb resident, and Cedric Suzman of the World Affairs Council that his county should host similar events. The conversation led to the current discussions.

Not that the county wasn’t already making strides in reaching out to foreign investors. The DeKalb Development Authority has sent delegations to China during each of the last three summers. They’ve mostly focused on the city of Ningbo, where the county now has a sister relationship with a district called Jiangdong.

Jonathan Weintraub, DeKalb’s deputy chief operating officer for development, said at the Thursday meeting that he would speak to the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce in August about doing business in China.

Email Mr. Johnson at larryjohnson@dekalbcountyga.go or call him at (404) 371-2425 for more information.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...