Brian McGowan, left, pictured in April 2010 with Vice President Joe Biden at a company launch in Pennsylvania.

Atlanta needs a narrative that helps it carve out a niche in a world where cities compete for investment beyond regional or national borders, the new chief of the Atlanta Development Authority told GlobalAtlanta.

For too long, the city’s economic development program has lagged, and now it’s time to up its game, especially overseas, said Brian McGowan, who was named president and chief executive officer in May. 

“This is a zero-sum game. It’s city against city. If they get the investment and the business, we don’t,” he said.

Mr. McGowan came to Atlanta from Washington, where he served as chief operating officer of the U.S. Economic Development Authority.

He vied for the job in Atlanta precisely because he saw the city as poised to thrive in the new world economy that he sees emerging from the recession.

“I wanted to focus on urban economic development … and I wanted to do it in a growing, dynamic city, not necessarily a distressed city, but a city that has a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of 21st-century sectors,” he said.

Atlanta has the right ingredients, including an internationally minded, “rock-star” mayor in Kasim Reed, an established corporate sector and clusters of modern, growing industries, he said.

With a young and well-educated population, the city also exudes a sense of vitality that’s felt even across the country in California, where Mr. McGowan worked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a deputy secretary for economic development before heading to Washington.

But Atlanta hasn’t done a good enough job selling itself around the world, he said.

It’s more than branding; Atlanta needs a comprehensive economic development strategy and a story that unifies the promising but disparate initiatives that make the city so dynamic, he said.

“Economic developers made the mistake of thinking they can market their cities like a can of Coke, but you can’t do that,” Mr. McGowan said in his downtown office at Underground Atlanta.

Mr. McGowan believes industry clusters play a major role in driving economies. Atlanta excels in financial technology, information security, biotechnology, logistics and as a base for Fortune 500 firms.

The strongest of its clusters is health care, though they all should be marketed more broadly and cohesively, he said.

Though Atlanta is a “global gateway” by virtue of its airport and its corporate giants, the city itself hasn’t done enough to explicitly engage with global markets, he said.

“We’re going to change that. There’s no possible way a city like Atlanta should not be heavily engaged in international trade and foreign direct investment,” Mr. McGowan said.

Mr. McGowan learned early on in his career how essential it is for companies and cities to think globally and how many leave growth on the table out of ignorance or fear.

The epiphany came during a trip to China, where Mr. McGowan represented the city of Ontario, Calif., at the opening of an export assistance center for a group of California cities in Guangzhou.

“My first time to China really opened my brain. When you start seeing what’s going on, you quickly figure out that we need to get our companies engaged in this,” he said.

While attending the Chinese city’s famous Canton Fair, he kept hearing GermansItalians and Canadians on the elevators. The Americans were nowhere to be found.

He began setting up trade missions that cut out tourism and focused almost exclusively on putting U.S. entrepreneurs in the same room with their Chinese counterparts.

“If you want to see the Great Wall of China, don’t come with me,” he said.

Some firms realized that China wasn’t the place for them. Others had to trash their business plans because they didn’t factor in the Asian nation’s high-speed growth, Mr. McGowan said.

“I would tell businesses all the time, ‘If you don’t have an international trade component to your business plan, whether or not you think you’re big and sophisticated, you’re not going to survive this century,'” he said.

The successful template he put together ultimately won the attention of Mr. Schwarzenegger, who was planning a state trade mission. Through that connection, Mr. McGowan was hired at the state, where overseeing the international trade program was one of his responsibilities.

In later working for the Obama administration, he noticed that countries are looking to catch up to the U.S. by investing in innovation, infrastructure and education.

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal was a rude welcome into his job of selling the city, but if Atlanta can pool its resources, it still has a chance to “win the future,” he said, borrowing a phrase from the Obama administration.

In June, he traveled to Washington to attend the BIO International Convention and to receive recognition from fDi magazine, which put Atlanta at No. 5 among major cities in a report analyzing their environment for foreign direct investment.

“There is something special happening here. There is no doubt about it,” he said. 

Read more: Atlanta Fifth Among American Cities in FDI Ranking

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...

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