The city of Jacksonville, Florida, saw an opportunity when its football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, traveled to London to play a game of American football. And the local officials’ idea had nothing to do with sport.
When the Jaguars started playing annually in London in 2013, JAXUSA, the economic development organization for northeast Florida, followed its hometown team across the Atlantic Ocean to build long-term relationships with international companies and organizations in the United Kingdom. The travel paid off — several companies from the U.K. and Ireland have located facilities in Jacksonville, joining other international firms who support thousands of jobs in the area.
Like Jacksonville, many American cities are winning new international business. Cities as diverse as Dayton, Ohio, and Phoenix have economic development organizations working to attract foreign investment.
“Americans over the last 10, 15 years have become increasingly more attuned to offering welcome to foreign investment,” says former Washington mayor Anthony Williams.
The interest is reciprocated. “In order to be a global firm, you have to have a presence in the United States,” says Steve Miller of SelectUSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce that offers assistance to firms interested in expanding to the U.S.
SelectUSA, through the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service, has 70 American diplomatic locations around the world. There, officials work with U.S.-based teammates to connect businesses in other countries with economic development organizations representing American cities and regions.
They work to find the best fit. JAXUSA, for example, worked with SelectUSA representatives in London to meet with businesses in need of advanced manufacturing operations. Northeast Florida is known for that type of industry.
Overseas businesses that expand to U.S. cities find a hospitable business environment, especially in smaller markets often overlooked by investors. “The mid-sized and smaller cities, you’re talking about everything from easier transportation to quality of life ... proximity to cultural assets like universities,” says Williams. “You have a great, trained workforce in some of these smaller communities.”
American cities invest in their workers. Through public-private partnerships, cities like Oklahoma City have developed comprehensive training programs with local community colleges and businesses so citizens have the skills to meet the expectations of employers in local industries.
Companies relocating with less capital also have options. Incubators allow businesses from other countries to set up temporary offices in industry-specific hubs. Automation Alley in Troy, Michigan, for instance, hosts overseas firms for 90 days to explore investment options in the region’s technology and manufacturing sectors. The arrangement allows firms to test the waters before setting up business in the U.S.
“The United States is a big country — it’s challenging,” says Miller. “We can’t tell them where to go, but we can provide them information and counseling.”