Three years ago, as the economy stewed in its post-recession torpor, President Obama vowed to double exports by 2015. Metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, were enlisted in the job-creation cause.
U.S. exports have since grown to a record $2.2 trillion in goods and services last year. Metro Atlanta also sent overseas a record $20 billion worth of everything from airplane parts to architectural drawings.
Even so, Obama’s target may not be met. And metro Atlanta — Georgia’s economic engine — is by one measure in the back of the export pack versus the nation’s 100 largest cities.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed hopes to change that by creating a “metropolitan export initiative” to boost trade and investment and create jobs. He’ll unveil the plan Wednesday.
Details remain vague, but the mayor will convene a panel of trade and development experts to determine Atlanta’s export strengths and recommend ways that the region’s small- and medium-sized companies can win overseas business. Businesses will be encouraged to join city-led trade trips, including one to Brazil in July.
In the long run, Reed hopes to give Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, a broader role with a full array of trade, investment and business retention offerings.It would supplement the work of federal and state agencies and borrow from programs in counties like Gwinnett and cities like Miami.
Metro Atlanta behind curve
Metropolitan areas, as economic entities, power the global economy. The nation’s top 100 cities account for 65 percent of U.S. exports. Metro Atlanta tallied $20 billion of Georgia’s $36 billion in exports last year, according to federal data compiled by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
“Atlanta is a large chunk of the state’s GDP and, at the end of the day, it behooves us to be out there marketing it and selling it,” said Bill Cronin, vice president of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development agency. “We’ve been talking as if we’re a global city for years. We are a global city and now we need to start acting like a global city.”
Georgia, like all states, benefits or suffers from Washington’s export policies. The administration and Congress craft tariff-lowering agreements with foreign partners and enforce trade rules. The Export-Import Bank of the United States provides financial guarantees for foreign companies to buy U.S. products.
The independent federal agency recently helped finance a $780,000 loan so a Mexican builder could buy solar panels made by Norcross-based Suniva. Exports to India and Latin America built the still-young company’s business and plumped employment to around 200 jobs.
“Exports increased our manufacturing capacity and we hired a lot of people,” said Bryan Ashley, chief marketing officer for Suniva which makes solar cells and panels and plans to hire another 10 workers this year. “Cities really need to foster the business community and rebuild America’s manufacturing base. Exporting is a huge part of that.”
Foreign tourists and business travelers visiting Atlanta were responsible for 20 percent of the region’s $20 billion export volume last year, since the money they spend here counts as an export. Business services — banks, architects, engineers, consultants — and goods such as chemicals and transportation equipment comprised the rest.
But Atlanta, as the nation’s 9th largest metropolitan area, ranks 13th nationwide for the value of its exports, Brookings reports. And exports account for only 8 percent of the metro region’s GDP — 77th among the top 100 regions. Further, metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate rose again in January to 8.7 percent, nearly a percentage point higher than the national average.
More focus on exports
“Only one percent of U.S. firms currently export,” said Amy Liu, co-director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “In the past, the U.S. has been lucky because we have a large, strong domestic economy. But, given the recession, that’s no longer really true. We’ve got to get more companies into the export pipeline.”
The White House, in collaboration with Brookings, is trying to enlist cities in the president’s push to double exports by 2015. Last year, Brookings helped four cities craft specialized export plans. Small- and medium-sized businesses in Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), Minneapolis and Syracuse said they weren’t prepared to export.
Atlanta, despite its self-proclaimed international city status bolstered by the 1996 Olympics, the world’s busiest airport and a slew of global Fortune 500 companies, suffers similar export challenges.
“It’s a little bit more difficult for them to promote just one city in the state or the region,” Cronin said. “We have the ability to market ourselves as a truly global city and that diffentiates us from other cities (in Georgia). And the good news is that our companies will benefit with new exports that, at the end of the day, will create sales and commerce and jobs for the city of Atlanta.”