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Atlanta Striving to Be Latin Trade Hub

Southern hotbed touts its influx of immigrants and launches a bid to become a global player.

October 26, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — This striving Southern city, the region's biggest metropolis and most important commercial center, is trying to win what may seem a surprising new role: gateway to Latin America.

Political and business leaders have launched an energetic -- and well-funded -- campaign to have Atlanta named as headquarters for a proposed Western Hemisphere trade zone. Backers say the designation would boost the city's decades-long effort to be taken seriously as a global player and strengthen ties to Latin America that have grown in recent years through international commerce and a big influx of Latino immigrants into Georgia and the rest of the South.

"It's the beginning of Atlanta coming of age in the hemisphere. It's a realization of Atlanta as a center of the economy of the United States and becoming part of the Latin American economy as well," said Jose Ignacio Gonzalez, director of Hemisphere Inc., the nonprofit group leading Atlanta's campaign.

Atlanta is one of five cities seeking to hold the secretariat of the proposed 34-nation trade bloc, known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA. So far, those vying also include Miami; Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; Puebla, Mexico; and Panama City. Atlanta's candidacy is especially surprising because it is the only contending city that does not sit within Latin America or even on its edge.

A selection is expected sometime next year, although the process by which a host will be chosen remains somewhat ill-defined. The stakes are potentially high. Although the number of jobs associated with housing the trade bloc's offices would be modest, increased international commerce is sure to follow. Analysts say the designation could lend the winner a prominence in the hemisphere analogous to that played by Brussels as headquarters of the European Union.

"Whoever gets this will be thought of as the capital of the Americas," said Ambler Moss, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama who is director of the North-South Center at the University of Miami.

Most analysts agree Atlanta would represent an unexpected choice because it is not known for its commercial connections to Latin America and lacks the Latin flavor and cultural offerings of its chief U.S. rival, Miami. But its relative newcomer status may prove an asset, some argue.

"Proximity won't do it. Language won't do it. What works is that it's a clean slate and people want to write on it," said Rajeev Dhawan, an associate professor of management at Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business in Atlanta.

For now, the question is whether Atlanta can elbow aside Miami as the U.S. candidate in an anticipated preliminary winnowing. Officials in Florida are quick to argue that Miami is so closely wedded to Latin America through culture and flight connections that many in the Caribbean and Central and South America barely think of it as being part of a foreign country.

"Miami, Fla., is the most strongly positioned city and region anywhere in the hemisphere to win this most coveted prize," said Jorge Arrizurieta, chief executive of Florida FTAA Inc., which is pushing that city's candidacy. "We are the undisputed gateway to the Americas."

But the fact that Atlanta is seeking to land the trade-zone headquarters at all says much about its evolution from a one-time railroad town to a Southern powerhouse that increasingly thinks of itself as an international city. Leaders say the odds of gaining the trade-zone headquarters are no more remote than when Atlanta managed to land the Olympic Games in 1996, a civic triumph that is regarded as a watershed moment in the city's development.

Atlanta has raised about $2 million, most of it from corporations, to fund the campaign, which to date has involved sending delegations to Latin American countries -- from Argentina and Uruguay to Honduras and Costa Rica -- to meet with those nations' trade officials and to press the city's case.

Proponents say Atlanta, as an important U.S. corporate center with direct air and highway links to much of the eastern half of the United States, is well-situated for a hemispheric trade role. They note that Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport handles more passengers than any other in the world and that metropolitan Atlanta is home to 13 Fortune 500 companies -- a total exceeded only by New York and Houston.

"If the merits of the secretariat are about trade, Atlanta has all the case in the world," said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

The value of products that Georgia sells abroad -- including transportation equipment, chemicals, paper and machinery -- increased substantially during the last decade, standing at $14.4 billion last year, compared with just under $8 billion in 1992.

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