Jacksonville's Global Ambitions

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 4, 2007.

It's been a steady drumbeat for almost two years, since the day a Japanese ocean carrier said it was establishing its East Coast hub in Jacksonville.

More trade is coming, the drumbeat goes, more international business, more imports and exports, more commercial connections with the rest of the globe.

But "international trade" can mean a range of things, encompassing the boxes that carry goods, the companies that make them, the sales offices that market them and more.

For a burgeoning group of civic and business leaders in Jacksonville, though, the hope is that the pending arrival of a direct pipeline for Asian goods to come to the area presages a more significant change for the region.

In coming years, they hope, the area will not only have more distribution centers and trucking companies, but it will also have more firms actually involved in buying and selling goods overseas. From regional headquarters to manufacturing plants, these businesses will not simply facilitate the moving of goods, but will be at the end points of the supply chain, making money through their dealings with the rest of the world.

The arrival of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. at the end of 2008 is a catalyst, these groups say, but the opportunities go far beyond simply facilitating cargo coming through the port.

"It's solidifying in people's mind that there's this whole big world," said Herrald Jonkers, director of trade and commerce for the Jacksonville Sister Cities Association, the local chapter of a non-profit group that hooks up U.S. cities and foreign counterparts.

And that world is one that more and more local organizations are trying to help businesses deal with, from local colleges and universities training students to make a living in the international arena to an increased focus on global business by a number of new and established groups. Recent months have seen:

Taken as a whole, these developments point to - at least - the possibility of Jacksonville expanding its reach in a globalized world.

Flood of new cargo

The jumpstart for all the talk, of course, is the pending arrival of Mitsui, which will provide the first major direct connection for containers to come from Asia to the First Coast. The numbers provide an inkling of how big a deal this business is, how many more goods will come to our shores: In the first year the terminal operated by Mitsui subsidiary TraPac is opened for business, it is expected to have the equivalent of 200,000 20-foot-long containers flowing through it, more than double the 153,009 containers that came into Jacksonville from foreign shores in 2006.

By 2011, the number of 20-foot equivalent units coming through the TraPac terminal should increase to about 800,000 containers. Combined with the 150,000 TEUs now coming from foreign markets and another 625,000 TEUs from domestic and military shippers, Jacksonville would be the fifth or sixth largest port in the country. "This is huge because of what they carry and who their customers are," said Jorge Arce, office director for the U.S. Commercial Service's Jacksonville office.

Already, companies like Michaels Stores Inc. and Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC have announced plans to locate distribution centers in Jacksonville, in both cases attributing the decisions to the Asian carrier's arrival.

Opening eyes to global trade

But the psychological effects might be even more important than the jobs created by a flow of merchandise imported through Jacksonville.

"With Mitsui O.S.K selecting Jacksonville as its East Coast terminal, it's like the Jaguars picking Jacksonville," said George Gabel, international chairman of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. "It awakens peoples' eyes from outside the city of the opportunity here and what the city is doing. They pay attention."

And the city itself has started paying attention. The Jacksonville International Business Coalition, for example, is the first collection of high-level business people led by the mayor with the express purpose of figuring out how to increase the city's international involvement. At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce is now focusing its efforts on direct foreign investments, looking to lure businesses to put their money on the First Coast

"An awareness of what's happening at the port is starting to get out on an international level," said Michael Breen, the recently hired director of the International Department of Cornerstone, the Chambers's economic development arm. "We're seeing more interest, and it's not just shipping related."

Although confidentiality agreements prohibit Breen from releasing details, he said in recent days he has talked to companies like a European food industry firm looking to establish its headquarters for North and South America here and a Jacksonville company with overseas components that is looking to base some international activities back at home.

At the same time, more local businesses are looking at the opportunities presented by international trade - not the least of them being cheaper shipping opportunities once the Mitsui service starts.

Those opportunities will be important, said Arce, whose organization helps business looking to export, because Mitsui's arrival should also stand as a reminder that for many businesses international trade isn't exactly optional.

"It's a major opportunity, but it's also a major threat," he said. "We'll be having Chinese products landing here cheaper than ever before. If you don't adapt, you will suffer. The global economy is not just a catchphrase, it's a way of life."

Nurturing a workforce

Still, it's not like Jacksonville is starting from nothing, even if it has a way to go. "Jacksonville is becoming a more international city, but I wish we could be more international," said Shung Kim, owner of Jaxma Greenhouse, a business that buys orchid seedlings from Korea and sells the mature plans across the eastern United States.

Those comments were echoed by Stellar, the construction company named Cornerstone's International Trader of the Year in 2006. In recent years, said company spokesman Mark Sherwood, more businesses Stellar deals with have recognized the advantages of Jacksonville.

"International partners looked to bigger hubs in the past because that's what those cities were known for," Sherwood said. "I think the growth you're seeing now is a representation of what city officials and private officials have been trying to do for a number of years."

And those with a desire to burnish Jacksonville's international standing say they don't plan on stopping that activity.

The biggest steps, perhaps, are being taken on the educational front, with both Florida Community College at Jacksonville and the University of North Florida focusing on turning out students who can work in a range of blue- and white-collar jobs focused on foreign trade.

At the same time, the Jacksonville Port Authority has partnered with two local high school to set up career academies focused on international business and international trade, for example, as well as offering a 12th economics curriculum that focuses on foreign trade.

Higher level students, said Port Authority Community Relations Manager Joanne Kazmierksi, can earn a certificate in logistics at FCCJ or earn one of several international business-related degrees at UNF. The Port Authority is also working with Edward Waters College to help that school develop a trade-related degree.

"They are our future employees," Kazmierksi said about local students. "They can be our future trading partners The more we get out in these schools, the more we're hearing, 'I didn't know this opportunity existed here.'"

Training is also becoming available for those already running businesses, as civic organizations look to fill what they see as a knowledge gap when it comes to foreign trade.

"The interesting challenge at this point is we need more international knowledge - the nuts and bolts, knowledge of markets," said Jonkers of Sister Cities. "Some people - in both small and large businesses - say there's opportunities out there, but they don't get started because the challenges to overcome are too great. Humans like to stay within their comfort zones."

That's why in coming months Sister Cities will hold workshops to help businesses learn how to import and export, while the Port Authority is working with the city's Small Business Development Center to develop an international business curriculum for small businesses, a program it hopes to roll out in January. "These are the small business owners we are hoping are going to grow their international trade opportunities," Kazmierksi said. "We're looking at training these business to go global."

Will global ambitions pan out?

In the end, it appears, no one can say with any certainty if heightened activity at the port will directly lead to a bigger international role for Jacksonville. Without a doubt, though, the coming of Mitsui has led to a greater number of people pushing for the city to assume such a role, people who are pushing more optimistically than ever before.

"The time is here where the Jacksonville community realizes what an opportunity we have," Gabel said. "It's all seemingly coming together now. Jacksonville is on its way to being a global city."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

Other Clips