“If you want to go south,” quips an old Miami gag, “drive north”. This somewhat snooty put down describes northern Florida as a cultural backwater; the usual butt of such jokes being America’s southern states. It hopes to highlight Miami’s status as a beacon of worldly sophistication and dynamism. But with national politics divided more than ever before, many big American cities are as gridlocked as government. Meanwhile, some medium-sized cities are employing a more bipartisan approach and quietly getting on with business; an increasingly attractive prospect for global investors.
Take Jacksonville. Located in north Florida it is one of the targets of the derisive comments from its larger cousin to the South. With Orlando, home to Disney World, also located in the Sunshine State, it is tough to compete with “Miami and the mouse” laments Mayor Alvin Brown. But the city has global aspirations. Which is one reason why the Jacksonville Jaguars, an American football team, played a league game against the Dallas Cowboys in London on November 9th. The Texan giants were always the smart money favourites, but the plucky upstarts threatened briefly. Ultimately though, Dallas prevailed and two Jacksonville players were treated for possible concussion. The city hopes to avoid similar headaches as it competes with the big boys. But even with a billion-dollar-generating port providing 65,000 jobs, inward investment from France, Brazil and elsewhere and more corporations headquartered in the city than anywhere else in Florida, the difficulty is marketing and educating, according to Mike Breen, Director of Jacksonville’s business chamber.
Mr Brown, a Democrat, says the secret is understanding that local benefits flow from cooperative, broad-based and business-friendly politics; what the Brookings Institution, a think tank, calls “networks of metropolitan leaders”. He praises Republican Governor Rick Scott as a “valuable player” and is proud to count Mario Rubio, older brother of Republican Senator Marco, on his team. He believes it partly explains why Jacksonville’s unemployment rate is bang on the national average of 5.8% (Miami’s rate is currently 6.1%).
It’s a similar picture in Denver and Austin, more global aspirants. Like Jacksonville, these cities hope one day to be the “beachheads” (or gateways, depending on the geography) to the consumer markets of the US interior. Investor confidence and finance flexibility are making second tier markets in stable economies more attractive, says David Hutchings of Cushman & Wakefield, a global investment company. Austin, in particular, is emerging as a technology hub. With a good cultural mix and quality of life, the city “ticks all the boxes” and appeals to fast growing companies, he says. Michael Hancock, Mayor of Denver, agrees he cannot afford to get bogged down with party politics. He points to Denver’s $4.7 billion transit system as an economic driver that would have come off the rails but for a consensual political approach. International investors, including Japan’s Terumo Corporation, the world’s largest blood transfusion company, are taking note. Mr Hancock used to work as Huddles, the mascot for the Denver Broncos, the local American football team. For medium-sized aspirant US cities, perhaps gridiron is the route to the world after all?