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San Diego gets picked to improve its export industry

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In about a year, San Diego will be a savvier city when it comes to exporting goods and services.

The Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution will help San Diego and 15 other chosen cities develop international export plans.

San Diego's vast exports range from agriculture to a number of specialized products, including golf clubs and medical equipment.

A group of business leaders will head to the nation's capital Monday to have an introductory meeting with the world-renowned public policy organization to understand what the collaborative effort entails.

The local dream team that’s been pulled together to participate includes members of the mayor’s office, the World Trade Center San Diego, Port of San Diego, the San Diego Economic Development Corp., and Peter Cowhey, dean of the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

San Diego is part of the first cohort of metro areas in the Brookings program. The others include Charleston, S.C.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; Louisville-Lexington, Ky.; San Antonio; and Tampa, Fla.

In 2011, Brookings developed the Metropolitan Export Initiative to help a pilot group of regional civic, business and political leaders create and implement customized Metropolitan Export Plans (MEPs).

“These localized export plans apply market intelligence to develop better targeted, integrated export-related services and strategies to help regions better connect their firms to global customers, as outlined by their individualized export goals,” said Rachel Harvey, communications coordinator for The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

The six- to 12-month program will use a mix of classroom instruction, peer learning opportunities, regional teamwork assignments and targeted advice to help San Diego and the other cities design and launch -- and ultimately implement -- their own MEPs by the end of the exchange period.

“Our defense industry will have opportunities to pursue international markets. It’s a key component of that plan,” said Sean Barr, vice president of economic development for the EDC.

Cowhey will make sure UCSD plays a part in crafting the framework to facilitate the regional export strategy.

“San Diego is seen as a very dynamic tech cluster in Washington, D.C., and therefore represents the type of region they believe ought to be competitive in the U.S. or world economy,” he said.

He’s also the perfect candidate to contribute his own expertise on international trade policy.

In 2009 Cowhey was named to a senior position in the Obama administration's Office of Special Trade Representative (USTR). During his one-year leave of absence from UCSD, he served as senior counselor to the U.S. Trade Representative, focusing on strategy and negotiations.

“The region is already significantly dependent on trade,” Cowhey said.

San Diego exported $16 billion globally in 2008, which accounted for 10 percent of its regional gross domestic product, according to the most recent data available.

In comparison, in that same year, San Francisco exported $20 billion as a region.

“We are a large, dynamic economy with a significant export sector, but it is not performing as well as a number of counterparts in the country,” Cowhey said.

San Diego is the seventh largest city in the United States, but it only ranks No. 17 among U.S. metro areas in exporting.

Not all goods travel by ship, train, truck or plane out of San Diego. Service exports, like education, travel via the Internet.

“Some of our most significant exports don’t actually take the form of goods -- they take the form of intellectual property,” Cowhey said.

Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), for example, doesn’t ship chips from San Diego, but rather ships the use of IP to producers around the world in return for licensing revenue. Cowhey is also the Qualcomm Endowed Chair in Communications and Technology Policy.

“We also have a very interdependent production ecosystem with Mexico here,” he said. “While a good deal of that doesn’t get registered as exports, it’s still a very important part of our economic growth.”

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