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Economic Development

City Council Task Force Studying “International Cabinet” Concept

By Lou Phelps
SBJ Staff

1/13/2010 - A task force established by the Savannah City Council to study whether to establish an “International Cabinet” held its third meeting last week to hear from guest speaker Alexis Gordon, executive director of the City of Charlotte, North Carolina’s International Cabinet.

Charlotte, as well as other cities around the United States, uses the International Cabinet approach to promote itself as an international city, and serves as a resource for international companies located in their area.

City Alderman Larry Steuber, who is a proponent of the concept, is leading the task force study group and recently traveled to Charlotte with several members of the task force to learn from that city’s leaders. He wanted the full task force to hear from Gordon first hand.

In a more than hour long presentation, Gordon explained how the Charlotte Cabinet functions, who serves on the Cabinet, and the myriad of tasks and goals for the group.

“Our goal is to foster international relationships with residents and visitors to Charlotte, legal or illegal, and we’re also there to serve as the “City of Charlotte to the world,” explained Gordon, who summarized the Charlotte Cabinet’s “vision” as:

1.  Encourage educational, business and cultural exchanges and dialogue between the City of Charlotte, citizens and the international community.

2.  Develop informed citizens, civic and business leaders, to enhance Charlotte’s role as an international city.

3. Utilize Charlotte’s sister cities as catalysts for building further relationships between Charlotte and the world.

"The Charlotte International Cabinet is a member of The National League of Municipalities, and is actively seeking international city relationships that will benefit Charlotte,” she explained.

A primary activity of the Cabinet’s staff is the development and management of an annual resource guide that captures all international resources in the region, and all international organizations that are in existence. These resources are then provided to international companies in the area to help them feel welcomed in Charlotte, and used by economic development leaders to attract new industry.

Gordon said that Charlotte has approximately 300 international organizations in the area, and the Mecklenburg County public school system has students from 151 different countries. 

According to Gordon and Steuber, Charlotte now has 565 foreign owned firms, and 850 in the region, and growing dramatically. Just over a year ago, there were only 483 foreign companies there with 740 in the region. The Savannah area currently has only 80, even with the dynamic growth of the port, explained Steuber.

Charlotte is also focused on welcoming international students and green-card workers, as well as tourists, though the Charlotte Cabinet did not appear to be heavily involved in helping to attract international tourists.

More than 30 members of the Savannah task force were in attendance to hear Gordon, including most of the Savannah area college and university presidents, and all asked questions of Gordon ranging from what is being accomplished annually, the measurement devices Charlotte is using to determine effectiveness, the annual budget, and what mistakes occurred and lessons have been learned along the way? 

Gordon, who has been with the Charlotte Cabinet for three years, explained that the Cabinet is not an official department of the city, which she viewed as a mistake – she and other employees are not city employees.

They are operating on an annual budget of just over $149,000 year, with two paid employees and five unpaid interns that provide research assistance. The Cabinet also receives $48,000 a year in operating expenses support from the city budget for office space in a city building, office supplies and technology support, “but we’re in desperate need of a Web manager,” she added. These funds include an annual audit. “Everything we spend is carefully audited,” she said.

The Cabinet was started in 1993, and has 30 members; 10 appointed by the mayor and 20 appointed by the Charlotte city council. It is governed by a seven-person executive board; two of the seven come out of the mayor's 10 appointees, and the other five are chosen by Chairman of the Cabinet.  Cabinet members must be from one of five categories including industry, medicine, education, international diplomacy and the arts. Elected officials are not allowed to be members, though it can include regional or state employees.

The Charlotte Cabinet also relies on donations and corporate sponsorships which fund programs, publications and events they sponsor. “If we want to have a conference, if we want to bring a jazz band from France to perform in our schools, we have to raise funds for this,” she said, including the annual resource guide that is published. That project is overseen by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

“We also have $6,000 a year for a Mayor’s Travel Fund, but it must be an official visit, such as signing an official sister city declaration,” said Gordon.

Charlotte began the Cabinet with a small grant from the U.S. State Department, which sent a junior trainee to help the effort get off the ground. “It’s grown as we needed to serve the community. It’s grown as there was something that someone saw was needed.

The international community in Charlotte was growing, and everyday people were coming to the mayor’s office with an international issue, whether it was refugees, different permits, visas and regulations,” Gordon explained.

The Cabinet coordinates all Honorary Consuls – representatives of foreign governments to Charlotte, such as those from Atlanta – who come to visit the city. “In many cases, they have their own groups, the Consular Corps and the Chiefs of Protocol, that we work with,” Gordon explained.

“For example, there is a new honorary consul for France in Atlanta, and we had him come to Charlotte for a dinner. We made sure the mayor knew everything about French companies in our area, leading citizens from France that live in Charlotte, the best French bistro in Charlotte, etc,” she explained.

It was a timely lesson.  On Tuesday, the chef of the Westin was honored by France with the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.  The Honorary French Consul from Atlanta was in Savannah for only his second visit ever, along with the French Consul’s representative from its Miami office. No one from city government was  in attendance.

A task force representative from the Savannah Hilton Head International Airport asked if the Cabinet had helped with the airport.  Gordon explained an issue that had come to their attention last year about the lack of foreign language signage at the Charlotte airport for business travelers and tourists.

“We realized that we needed to put out public transportation information at the airport in several foreign languages. We realized we had a lot of information put out at the airport in Spanish, but not in Portuguese, and that was a big problem, based on their research of who lived in the area,” she said.

“We want to be sure that someone in Charlotte doesn’t do something foolish that would hurt the city, if it has to do with international business. For example, an international business traveler in Clover S.C. is using our Charlotte airport, so we are aware of what is going on around us, to best serve that traveler,” she added.

“Public safety is also an issue,” when it comes to the international community, she added. “The second most-popular language in Charlotte is Vietnamese, so we have to have police officers who are fluent in Vietnamese,” and emergency planning in the area now involves the Cabinet. 

She pointed to the success the Cabinet had in assisting with the 2002 ice storm. “There were many deaths in 2002 due to the critical ice storm. The media was bringing out plenty of information, but not accessible to the Spanish community. Most of the deaths were in the Spanish community. Communicating in a crisis to people is a big problem. What if Charlotte became a terrorist target?  What if there’s another (Hurrican) Hugo that wipes us out?” she added. 

New Projects for the Charlotte Cabinet
“We do a lot of cultural exchanges internationally, but they want us to start looking at business and educational relationships, civic and government,” she said. “One of the biggest things on everyone’s mind in Charlotte is energy,” and they are working on a relationship with what she termed “a very green city in Germany.” 

They have added an international section to the Chamber of Commerce’s Newcomers Guide, and are now asking ex-patriots living in Charlotte to get involved and help with new residents to Charlotte.

They’ve been asked to help get the international community interested in the new Nascar Museum which will be opening in May.

“We want to get people out of the airport. Because it’s a hub, we have a lot of people who never leave the airport.  So Visit Charlotte is involved with that,” Gordon said.

“We would set up a task force for whatever we are tasked to do, such as work to insure the city is well positioned to attract Japanese tourists,” she explained. The Cabinet’s employees would not undertake to do all the work themselves, for this type of effort, but would organize people to work on a special focus area. 

“Workforce development is an issue right now. They stopped teaching German in the high schools, and that became a BIG issue to the German consul and local industry here,” Gordon said.

For the Census 2010 effort, Charlotte has set up the “Complete Count Committee” and has several subcommittees that the Cabinet employees are involved with, helping to bring resources to the challenge of communicating with all of the different language communities there.

In summary, “When international companies come to look at the Charlotte market for possible expansion, the Cabinet is a resource used by economic development leaders,” Gordon said.

“We might be asked to help connect people with the German Chamber of Commerce in the U.S, or the German Embassy representatives in the South,” she said. “They don’t have to be located in Charlotte, but we know who they are.”

“It’s all about relationships.  That’s what keeps them there.  We have a lot of resident aliens, because otherwise they’ll move, and it’s great when they stay in Charlotte and are spending their money there,” Gordon concluded.


(L to R)  Alexis Gordon, from the City of Charlotte, NC's International Cabinet, City Alderman Larry Steuber, and Savannah International Cabinet task force member Richmond Fergerson talk after Gordon's presentation in Savannah last week.
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