A Changing Paradigm: Cities and Regions Embracing Global Interdependence

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Distrustful, inward-looking and even smug…U.S. local officials have been called it all when it comes to describing their attitudes toward strengthening global economic interdependence.  And this is part of a broader story about the U.S., that we are unwilling to look to global partners to help restore economic growth.  Perhaps in certain places at certain times this is justified, as noted by Neal Peirce in his recent column. We know Federal government resources and vision are sorely lacking in this arena, but as with most critical community issues, it is the work of cities, the innovations of those at the grassroots, which drive change.

The paradigm is changing. Cities and regions are increasingly embracing greater global economic linkages.  Last month, over 100 U.S. local officials, including mayors, council members, city managers, county commissioners, economic development and international trade staff, chamber of commerce representatives, members of tech councils, university leaders, business leaders and other key community stakeholders representing 53 cities and regions attended NLC’s Leadership Academy on Local Economic Competitiveness. The purpose: to increase their communities’ position in the global economy.  Cities as diverse as Saline, Mich. and Salt Lake City sat side-by-side talking international trade and foreign investment, meeting with Chinese businesses interested in investing in U.S. communities and learning new strategies from national experts and peers leading in the field.

Local officials across the country welcome the value of international sources of growth to strengthen the long-term viability of their communities.  In a recent NLC survey of local officials, 83% say that expanding trade opportunities and attracting foreign investment is important to the success of their local economy.  Take Anderson, Ind., which after setting a 5 year commitment to developing international sources of growth, established strong relations with Chinese local governments and businesses and is about to close a deal to bring new investment and jobs from China to Anderson. Or Tacoma, Wash., whose mayor, Marilyn Strickland, makes annual trips abroad to showcase local businesses to help them break into new markets. Or Chattanooga, Tenn., where the city and county have actively worked with the private sector to improve the quality of life and sustainable development of their community.  In the process,  Chattanooga’s leaders realized that building a quality place for those already part of the community also attracts economic investment, most recently, German auto giant Volkswagen.

These communities represent an evolving local culture that is favorable to global trade and investment.  Their success also illustrates that the nation’s regional powerhouses are not the only winners in the global economy.  The makers of strong regions are local leaders with the political will to adapt, to see a new economic future for their communities, to cross political boundaries, and to work with new partners.  These leaders are emerging in cities and towns across the country, and in the regional powerhouses of the not-so-distant future.

Those of us in the “chattering classes,” that comment, write and analyze trends in cities need to do a better job of telling the stories of Anderson, Tacoma and Chattanooga.  Doing so may be a matter of securing our economic future.  Businesses and governments around the world are hesitant to invest in or do business with people they feel are parochial and do not respect them. A recent NBC story reported, “The U.S. could lose out on $1-2 trillion of investment from China in the years ahead. Why? Fear mongering about China by American politicians and businessmen like Donald Trump has made Chinese think twice about investing in the U.S.” The consequence of how we portray America’s cities and local leadership is real. In cities and regions across the country, the paradigm is changing; the time has come to update our story.

Author’s Note: The White House has proclaimed this week, May 15-21, World Trade Week 2011 and encourages “all Americans to observe this week with events, trade shows and educational programs that celebrate and inform Americans about the benefits of trade to our Nation and the global economy.”