A major competition is brewing between two cities in the southeastern United States to become the gateway to Latin America. Both Atlanta and Miami want to be the hub for businesses from that region. Billions of dollars are at stake. Miami may have a substantial head start, but Atlanta is pushing for a come-from-behind victory.
Miami is known for its links to Central and South America: there are Spanish-language radio and TV stations, newspapers and billboards, an entire section of the city called Little Havana, an abundance of restaurants featuring Latin cuisine. And that helps draw businesses.
"Miami is what we call northern South America," says Christian Toro, who runs a media company in Colombia. He and other Latin American business leaders see Miami as a home away from home, and a natural place to set up shop in the U.S.
The vice president of Venezuela-based Cisneros Group, Gabriel Montoya, highlights Miami's large population of qualified Spanish-speakers who know the Latin culture, pointing out, "in terms of accessibility, availability of bilingual human resources, it's very convenient."
All this means a steady influx of new businesses and jobs for Miami. It also helps increase Florida's trade ties with Latin America, boosting the state's coffers. But in recent years, Atlanta has been trying to usurp Miami's position. Hans Gant, head of economic development for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, has spent a lot of time, effort, and energy in making the connection to Latin America. "Chile, Brazil, Argentina are considered to a great extent emerging economies. That has huge opportunity, long-term, in the future. As these economies mature, they're going to reach out to establish foreign direct investment in other parts of the world. When that happens," he says, "we want to be in the position to attract that foreign direct investment here. And that creates direct jobs here as well."
So, like any competitor, Atlanta is playing to its strengths. It doesn't have Miami's bountiful Latin American culture, but Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue argues his state has something else: what he calls "a corner-store location." Standing before a room full of Latin American business leaders at a recent summit in Atlanta, Perdue spoke of the huge Atlanta airport and the state's two ports. He said Georgia's location, just north of Florida, makes it the best place to bring in goods and quickly reach the entire U.S. population. "Marketing and logistics will ultimately figure that out. [We offer] the shortest, cheapest, most efficient route to the customer." His hope is that Latin American businesses will agree, and build their U.S. headquarters in Atlanta.
It's tough to overestimate how much Georgia wants this. The state recently spent more than $100,000,000 in new technology at the ports. And the Atlanta airport's new fifth runway cost $1.3 billion. State leaders say both are part of the Latin American strategy. And apparently they are helping.
Mark Smith, who oversees western hemisphere affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says "Atlanta is really an up-and-comer." He says parts of Texas and California that do a lot of business with Mexico are also pursuing Latin America, but it's really a two-city fight. Ciudad a ciudad, as it were. "The most vigorous competition right now is between Atlanta and Miami in terms of for the title of the Gateway to the Americas."
This race has no end in sight, but Hans Gant of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, says business leaders are looking ahead, far ahead. "We have a strong a belief that somewhere in the future, whether it's near or far, there is going to be a free trade agreement of the Americas. We want to be the location that is ultimately selected as the headquarters or secretariat of the FTAA. And we've been marching down this road with a campaign to position ourselves just for that."
Serving as FTAA headquarters would give a city bragging rights, as the gateway to Latin America. That goal, though, might be putting the cart before the horse, since it's not clear a hemispheric free trade zone will ever get the needed support in either the United States or Latin America. Many U.S. politicians are wary for numerous reasons, including outsourcing jobs. And there are some growing populist, anti-American movements in such countries as Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
But Governor Perdue projects optimism, observing, "The business community can lead us oftentimes in creating relationships that may not exist in a political way. So hopefully that will be the case." Georgia's top official spoke to reporters after his speech to Latin American business leaders. They were in Atlanta for a conference sponsored by the Sumaq Alliance, a network of business schools in Latin America and Spain. Sumaq, by the way, means 'excellence' in the Quechua language of the Andes. The Sumaq meeting was originally planned for Miami. But organizers say three years ago, Atlanta made a series of phone calls, offered a better deal, and lured it away.