Metro Chicago counties to forge regional push for foreign investment

Metro Chicago’s seven counties, an intensely competitive bunch, will agree Friday to lower their sharp elbows and collaborate on trying to pump up lackluster levels of foreign investment in the region.

Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, and the city of Chicago, will work with the Brookings Institution think tank for the next 10 months to develop a plan for raising the profile of the often-overlooked region. The effort dovetails with a nearly 2-year-old regional push to build exports.

Though it’s the economic hub of the Midwest, metro Chicago lacks a globally recognized brand and a one-stop shop to work with potential investors, the consortium acknowledged in its application for the Brookings program.

“There is no singular voice,” said Mike Jasso, Cook County’s economic development bureau chief. And there is no structure for sharing leads among agencies.

Metro Chicago has landed some high-profile deals recently, among them China-based Wanda Group’s nearly $1 billion project to build a hotel-condo complex downtown.

Still, Illinois snared just 3 percent of the foreign capital investment into North America in 2014, according to the fDi Report, an annual assessment of a Financial Times database that tracks investments into new operations here.

Historically, cities and states chase these sorts of “greenfield” investments because they create jobs — but they represent only a small fraction of foreign investment activity.

In contrast, when a foreign investor buys or merges with a U.S. firm, the deals may or may not help a region. Courting those deals is a riskier business for politicians because the new ownership may shrink or close local operations.

But Brookings fellow Marek Gootman suggests regions should consider ways to make such deals work for them, finding ways to encourage companies to retain and expand local operations. Such deals also can pique interest among other foreign investors, he said.

In Louisville, Ky., for instance, “General Electric’s appliance division was just purchased by a very large Chinese company,” he said. “Suddenly Chinese investors, Chinese firms are saying, ‘Well, why did that leading company decide to invest in and acquire that asset in this particular place.'”

Only 6 percent of the Chicago region’s workforce is employed by foreign-owned firms, but those firms tend to invest more in research and to export at a greater rate, which lifts the local economy, Brookings found.

Brookings lends a hand to metro areas seeking to build foreign investment, which has dropped off in the U.S. over the past two decades.

The challenge for Chicago will be marketing the region as a whole while knowing that at some point there will be competitions for individual projects, Jasso said.

“But if we reach the point where we’re attracting that kind of investment,” he said, “where we’re fighting over where a foreign entity will invest within the Chicago region, that’s a high-class problem to have.”

[Source:-  Chicago Tribune]