Regional leaders need to join together to stay competitive in the global market

St Petersburg Florida

In 2014, St. Petersburg, Fla. mayor Rick Kriseman and Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn went on a trade mission to Chile. But, in recognizing that scale matters in such attempts at global competitiveness, the two mayors made their trip not as representatives of two separate cities, but as dual ambassadors of the Tampa Bay region.

Prior to the trade mission, the economic development organizations (EDOs) of three neighboring Florida counties—Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Pasco—joined forces to create Global Tampa Bay, aligning their international business engagement strategy in a regional economic partnership. This meant pooling resources, sharing a budget, taking turns as chair, and even rotating meeting locations. The new structure did not replace the three existing EDOs, nor did it require a plethora of new staff. Still, Global Tampa Bay goes a long way in reinforcing a common strategy for international competitiveness.

Across the United States, organizing for global competitiveness has motivated regional actors to change behavior and collaborate in new ways. Metro areas compete for talent, export markets, and foreign direct investment (FDI). Positioning a region for greater economic success and visibility oftentimes requires partnering across sectors at the metropolitan scale.

Acting at the regional scale

If regions—not individual towns or cities—are the scale we use for industry and labor markets, it should make sense that they’re also the right scale for economic strategies and governance. Investors rarely pay attention to city borders. Global competition should incentivize a region’s stakeholders to work together and project a common identity to the outside business community.

In Philadelphia, efforts around exports and FDI uncovered the need for a clearer, more cohesive global identity. This motivated organizing around a regional (rather than city) identity. The strategy fostered collaboration across jurisdictions and economic ecosystems stretching over county, city, and even state lines. For example, the Philadelphia biotech clusters exist both downtown and outside of the city. Its financial cluster covers spans the Delaware Valley, covering 16 counties and four states. Regardless of their own assets, surrounding counties of a city like Philadelphia stand to benefit from leveraging their larger center’s international visibility. 

Building trust around a backbone organization

Regions benefit from having a backbone organization coordinating international business activities and bringing actors together. Take the Greater Atlanta region, where—like many metro areas—decisionmaking and implementation are dispersed. With 29 counties spread over 8,723 square miles, Greater Atlanta has a plethora of public and private actors participating in the region’s economic development strategy: the city’s development authority (Invest Atlanta), the counties’ chambers of commerce, World Trade Center Atlanta, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and other gateways, universities like Georgia Tech, industry-specific groups, business leaders like Georgia Power, and so on. At the center of this constellation, though, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is leading the region’s global trade and investment plan, in coordination with its partners and outlying counties.

Other models for global competitive agendas exist, too. The consolidation of local EDOs can mainstream global activities into broader economic development strategy. In San Diego, the sponsors of the independent World Trade Center recognized this need and supported an integration with the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. The linking of these organizations honed the decisionmaking process for global competitiveness and ensured greater coordination. Similarly, the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, an early supporter of exports, merged into Greater Seattle Partners, promoting not just the city but the region as a whole and infusing international activities into core economic development functions.

Integrating across sectors and partners

Effective economic governance involves a combination of public and private leadership. Business involvement in leadership helps insulate strategy from election cycles and staff turnover, and can secure resources and regional support for international efforts.

Greater Seattle Partners has organized a regional leadership partnership that brings together some of the region’s largest businesses, including Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks. Firms like these can play the role of ambassador by projecting the metro area’s attractiveness to a foreign business audience, extending the reach and credibility of economic developers.

Economic development organizations oftentimes establish steering committees on FDI and exports to orient efforts in various markets. At Greater Portland Inc., more than 70 public entities and private investors across seven counties support the regional governance integration. On sales missions, these organizations crosspollinate: Business Oregon, the tourism agency, the Portland Business Alliance, the U.S. Commercial Service, and the Port of Portland align priority markets to enhance business and visitor attraction.

Partner integration helps in the exchange of business information. In Missouri, the St. Louis FDI steering committee gathers a wide range of public, private, and academic actors, including local chambers of commerce, major universities, the regional office of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, state economic development agencies, and key business executives. Regular meetings help coordinate on key tactics and incoming business delegations.

Not a simple solution 

Despite the benefits, there are many impediments that can constrain these collaborative ambitions.

For one, organizations involved in economic development evolve over time: Political changes, mandate shifts, consolidations, or resources constraints often disrupt the course of a long-term strategy. Likewise, cross-agency teams must agree on practical pathways to execute the partnership, but political and civic differences can hinder implementation when the rubber meets the road.

When partnered organizations are highly specialized on one aspect of international business, common ground and converging interests must be emphasized. Without this unification, varying priorities can lead to diverging market targets and goals. And, of course, funding and capacity constraints often limit the enthusiasm for collaboration.

But in a country where the federal government has stepped back from many efforts to support the prosperity of local communities, regional economic governance matters. Metro area leaders must consider the benefits of local coordination and partnership if they intend to strengthen their region’s global standing.