US cities reach out for overseas trade

It was the kind of diplomatic scene - complete with toasts and the initialing of a bilateral friendship treaty - one would expect to see in Washington, D.C., or an overseas capitol rather than in the nation's heartland.

But it took place at a mayoral breakfast in Chicago City Hall for the deputy mayor of industrial Shenyang in China's Liaoning Province. It marked the first step of a formal cultural link between the two cities which both sides hope will grow into a trading relationship.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington told the visiting Chinese, no differences ''are large or important enough to keep us from joining hands for the sake of mutual progress and understanding.''

But the diplomatic tributes flowing both ways, with the help of translaters, in the Windy City this week also served to underscore the importance of a new economic trend in many urban centers.

With budgets strained by cuts in federal aid, the exodus of manufacturing firms, and decreased local revenues, many cities have begun to reach out for new international connections in trade and investment. Their hope is to bolster their local economies and add jobs.

In the past this kind of outreach has largely been the province of Washington , state governments, and private companies. Some 30 states now have offices overseas. But cities are discovering they can play a special role by bringing banks, traders, and investors together with a minimum of red tape.

''I think mayors realize they have a role they can play as facilitators, helping (business) gain entry and shaping policy,'' observes National League of Cities (NLC) spokesman Randy Arndt.

''Cities are much more active and involved. ... What's new is the increasing number,'' confirms Gordon Thomas, acting director of domestic operations of the Foreign and Commercial Service of the US International Trade Commission.

Although no city is developing its own foreign policy and few have the means to set up their own offices overseas, many have handed new international responsibilities to staff members or departments.

Philadelphia, for instance, has a new foreign trade development office. Seattle, where both seaport shipments and airport traffic are reported sharply up in recent months, has a new coordinator of international trade and tourism.

The agendas of both of the nation's major city lobbying organizations reflect the change. The NLC, which found that only 19 percent of America's larger cities undertake trade missions, plans to hold its second annual international trade-development conference in Atlanta in September. Its aim: to coach cities on how to assess their export strength, attract foreign investment capital, and organize trade missions. And during the last four years the US Conference of Mayors has included dozens of American cities in promotional missions to Zurich and Hong Kong, aimed at increasing foreign investment.

Though specific city trade figures are almost impossible to come by, direct foreign investment in the United States, much of it in cities, rose sharply during the 1970s and now stands at more than $111 billion.

Some cities are trying hard to focus their international efforts for the largest payoff. San Antonio, for instance, is concentrating on developing better ties with Japan and Mexico, according to Robert Gonzales, director of the city's Office of International Relations.

Although he notes that Dallas and Houston have more than 200 Japanese companies (largely high tech) between them while San Antonio remains ''not very well known'' internationally, Mr. Gonzales says several Japanese firms have recently visited his city and that, next May, Mayor Henry Cisneros will go to Japan, where ''we hope to close some deals.''

But San Antonio, with a population that is 60 percent Mexican-American, emphasizes more long-term gains in dealing with Mexico. The city took part in a corporate seminar recently in Mexico City on ''How to Export to the US Through San Antonio.'' Says Gonzales: ''We want to establish San Antonio as the place you think of when you think of Mexican trade.'' But he adds that Mexico is in such dire straits economically that ''it would be dumb and immoral to say we want their investment at this point.''

Few cities or mayors have seen more international action lately than Atlanta and its mayor, Andrew Young. Within the last year he has played host to such Atlanta visitors as French President Francois Mitterrand and Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. He convened a trade conference in his city of Saudi and American businessmen which led to $140 million worth of business.

The former United Nations ambassador, who has also led trade missions to the Caribbean and attended a recent trade conference in Tunisia, has stressed the importance of increased trade with less-developed nations. His message to former colonial nations, says deputy chief Atlanta administrative officer Henry Miller, is that rather than go through their former colonial capitals to trade with the US, they can deal with American cities such as Atlanta directly.

''This is a city that understands what the third world is trying to do,'' Mr. Miller says.

Many US cities have found the cultural and education exchange link offered in a sister-city relationship a convenient route to building solid economic ties. More than 700 American cities now have sister-city relationships.

The agreement initialed in Chicago with Shenyang, for instance, calls for exchanges of everything from videotapes to study groups on plant cultivation. But there is a second sheet of paper resting on mayoral chief of staff William Ware's desk which, from an economic standpoint, is most prized.

It is a list of 200 items ranging from oil-refining and food-processing equipment to synthetic fibers and highway-construction materials which Shenyang wants to buy from US firms this year.

''The city is not an entrepreneur, but it can facilitate some things,'' says Mr. Ware. He notes that Chicago-based firms will be explored first as potential sellers but says he can't guarantee that sales will ''immediately translate into jobs on Chicago's West Side.''

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