Atlanta links international disputes and airport as runway to global services economy

Scanning the departures and arrivals board on the way home from launching metro Atlanta’s new foreign direct investment strategy under the Global Cities Initiative, it was easy to understand why local leaders remain focused on finding strategies to better leverage their airport as a unique infrastructure asset for global economic opportunities.

Not only does Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport continue to move more travelers than any other airport in the world, it ranks first in international through-traffic passengers. Atlanta also serves more nonstop international destinations than the next three busiest U.S. airports (Los Angeles Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport). This high international connectivity is a competitive advantage, offering easier and more efficient access to global markets and talent.

Like many metro areas, Atlanta historically has struggled with how best to maximize the impact of its airport beyond moving people and goods across its taxiways and terminals. Airport operations are an enormous economic engine, leading to $34.8 billion in direct business revenue and employing 63,000 workers, according to a 2013 report released by the airport. However, transferring the most international travelers to somewhere else does not take full advantage of broader economic potential.

So Atlanta’s leaders have been assessing how to align the region’s distinctive economic specializations with its international aviation connectivity, beyond their more conventional efforts to promote cargo flows and commercial real estate development. They combined airport access with the region’s sophisticated legal community, unusually intense concentration of multinational corporate headquarters, and the international presence of 78 consular and trade offices.

And they identified an emerging market opportunity in the growing number of complex disputes associated with global business activities. Arbitrating legal issues between foreign companies in a neutral country is an increasingly common remedy when firms are concerned that judgment in either native court would give a “home-court advantage” to one party. International arbitration is enforceable in the over 150 countries that are signatories to a 1950s agreement that established common practices.

As a result, the Atlanta Center for International Arbitration and Mediation at Georgia State University was opened last fall to help tap this potential for the region and compete with other emerging cities. Making Atlanta a global hub for arbitration proceedings between foreign firms will increase exports through delivering legal services and hosting litigant teams, and it will bring more global awareness and business links to the region. One study placed the 2013 economic impact of international arbitration in Toronto at nearly $275 million Canadian dollars.

ACIAM markets and pursues agreements to bring more cases to the region, offers meeting space and services to support arbitration, and offers continuing education classes for area lawyers, among other activities. “The practice of international law is less and less the exclusive purview of the international firms in New York or London or Paris and the Continent,” Shelby Grubbs, the ACIAM executive director, said in a phone interview.

Groundwork for the Atlanta center began six years ago. Regional leaders needed to work with state officials to overhaul the state arbitration code in line with international rules. They started hosting arbitration conferences to raise visibility. And they collaborated with Georgia State, which included the center in plans for its new downtown law building.

“ACIAM weaves together our region’s industry and infrastructure strengths with our plans to increase exports, foreign investment, and international visibility. And it requires business, government, and university support to implement,” Jorge Fernandez, vice president of global commerce for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, told us over email. “In these ways, ACIAM really illustrates metro Atlanta’s comprehensive response to the evolving global economy.”