Regional officials unveil St. Louis export initiative

June 28, 2016
By Jacob Barker
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Amidst the backdrop of flattening global trade growth, Brexit and U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s threats to scrap international trade deals, area leaders on Tuesday unveiled a new plan to grow the St. Louis region’s exports.

Yes, things have looked better for global trade. But it’s precisely the uncertain outlook that makes it more important for St. Louis to have its own blueprint for getting products and services abroad, said World Trade Center St. Louis Executive Director Tim Nowak.

“It’s not the time to put the head in the sand,” Nowak said following the announcement of the new plan at Washington University on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s time to see the reality of the global economy and pursue it.”

Coordinating the St. Louis region’s organizations and companies to better take advantage of global markets will be a new entity — the St. Louis Trade Commission — housed in the World Trade Center St. Louis. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership is on board and the St. Louis Regional Chamber has agreed to help fund the initiative over the next three years.

Much of the commission’s work will focus on coordination and organization, giving entities a go-to spot for export information and data on in-demand regional products and commodities and promising foreign markets.

But the plan also calls for engaging smaller businesses in the region that may be hesitant or unaware of opportunities abroad. Specifically, the St. Louis region’s startup community is a prime target, and the area’s network of incubators and accelerators offer a good entryway to inform those communities about resources and organizations that can help them find customers globally.

World trade organizations used to look for domestic success before helping companies look abroad, Nowak said. But competition isn’t coming from only within the U.S. anymore, and local industries shouldn’t over-rely on the domestic market without looking for opportunities beyond it.

“Companies now are born global,” he said.

To help capture some of the startup community’s energy and put it toward exports, the plan calls for the creation of a “St. Louis Export Challenge” competition modeled after the Accelerate St. Louis Challenge competition. That contest gives winning startups cash prizes and access to area resources.

The export competition was seeded with a $125,000 gift from JPMorgan Chase that will fund cash prizes for small and midsize area companies. Applicants can submit business export plans through July 27 on the Accelerate St. Louis website.

The new export plan was borne out of a program facilitated by the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative. St. Louis won a spot in the program last year and has spent much of the ensuing time developing the plan. Next, as part of the program, area leaders will work on a plan to attract foreign direct investment.