Dallas joins the ranks of US cities striving for `world class' status. Task reflects new thinking in usually self-reliant city

Dallas may have J. R. Ewing to thank for its present international name recognition. But former British Prime Minister Edward Heath should get a share of the credit if the city's business leaders achieve their goal of increasing foreign interest in the Dallas region over the next few years. Mr. Heath is a trustee of the Swiss-based EMF Foundation, an international economics forum of top-notch business leaders and statesmen which holds an annual symposium in Davos, Switzerland, to consider world economic prospects. During a luncheon in Dallas last year, Heath suggested to Dallas Chamber of Commerce board chairman John Johnson that Dallas looked like a good candidate for the 1986 symposium, which would feature world regions considered to embody an ``entrepreneurial spirit.''

Mr. Johnson jumped at the invitation and last week a group from Dallas went to Europe where they joined representatives from Geneva, Switzerland; Catalonia, Spain; Flanders, Belgium; and Osaka, Japan in touting their respective regions at the week-long gathering.

That anecdote illustrates how integrated the global economic community is coming to be. The fact that Dallas wasted no time in joining a conference half-way around the world shows how important international connections and investment prospects are becoming for American cities. (In 1984, foreign direct investment in the US was $159.6 billion, up $22.4 billion over 1983.)

``By almost any criterion, Dallas cannot yet claim to be a major international city,'' says Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Enterprising, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ``But like other major American cities, it is an international city in that much of what happens abroad now has a tremendous impact on its economic activity.''

City leaders are realizing that foreign investment, like foreign affairs, can no longer be ignored -- which is why something like the Davos symposium is considered a plum.

``The top employers and probably more than half of the gross world product are represented at this conference,'' says Richard Fisher, senior manager in Dallas of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., an international private banking firm. ``The bottom line is jobs, jobs, jobs''; attracting them is long, hard ``missionary work,'' he adds, ``and when you're trying to achieve economies of scale, this is certainly the best audience money could buy.''

Mr. Fisher, who will join Mr. Johnson, and four other representatives of the Dallas business community, arranged for the delegation to precede its stay in Switzerland with a two-day stop in West Germany, where the group met Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Richard von Weizacker, various Cabinet ministers, and West German business leaders.

Such exposure ``legitimizes us in the eyes of the international community,'' notes Fisher, who laments the strong stereotypical image of Texas, and particularly Dallas -- ``cattle ranches, cowboys, and oil wells'' -- perpetuated around the world by ``that television show.'' According to Fisher, it's ``the fact you can be anybody you want in this city, the lack of limits,'' that attracts foreign interests.

That may be partly true, says Dr. Weinstein. But he argues that the same basics that draw domestic investment -- location, population growth, work-force availability, profit potential -- are what drive foreign investment. He predicts that Dallas, up to now eclipsed by cities like Atlanta and Houston in attracting foreign investment, is on the verge of becoming a major destination for foreign capital.

According to Weinstein, the number of foreign-owned companies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area increased by more than one-fourth, to 545, over the past year, with the number of foreign banks more than doubling, to 15. Some of that growth has come at the expense of Houston, he adds, as that city's attractiveness has faltered along with the oil industry.

Opportunities such as the Davos symposium are important to a city, says Weinstein, not because they lead to any immediate spurt in foreign investment, but because of the contacts they foster. ``The important thing at a conference like this is what happens at the dinner parties,'' he says, ``the one-to-one relationships developed between their investment bankers and business leaders, and ours.''

Seconding that reasoning is James Crupi, whose International Leadership Center in Dallas offers two-week ``fellowships'' to acclimate American business leaders to the international marketplace, and help them develop ``networks'' with the international business community.

``Most American cities have not been very sophisticated about developing their international potential,'' says Dr. Crupi. But he adds that this will have to change as the world becomes what he calls a ``collection of city-states,'' for whom national boundaries are increasingly irrelevant. ``In the post-industrial information age, commerce will be focused more and more at the city level.''

Atlanta is one city that understood ``the coming international order'' early on, says Crupi, and benefited from that foresight. He says the fact the Southeast's largest city is ``capital poor'' actually worked to its advantage. ``It needed money for its development,'' says Crupi, ``so it went to the only place it could; it went international.''

The region now has the country's largest concentration of Japanese companies after California, he says. The opening of a direct airline flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt in 1982 led to a 10-fold increase in the number of German companies represented in the city, adds Crupi, and the doubling of space now under way at Atlanta airport's international concourse solidifies the city's commitment to foreign business.

``In a funny way, Dallas's wealth allowed it to feel it wasn't necessary to go out and interact with the world,'' says Crupi, ``but that's changing. They've got a ways to go, but they're realizing the importance of playing on the international stage.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.