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St. Louis climbs in rankings of global growth (1-18-12 St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

When it comes to the global race for economic growth, St. Louis is faring better than it used to. But the region still has a lot of catching up to do.

That is the thrust of a new report out Wednesday from the Brookings Institution. The Washington thinktank ranked the world's 200 biggest metro economies by growth in the past year and found St. Louis came in 115th, with both income and jobs growing at roughly 1 percent. The area ranked 117th a year ago.

St. Louis' ranking is a far cry from the Chinese, Saudi and Turkish cities that dominated Brookings' top 10 with growth north of 5 percent last year. But it is also, relatively speaking, an improvement on the plodding pace St. Louis set in the 15 years leading up to the recession, when it ranked in the bottom 50 of big global economies.

It's too soon to know if St. Louis' improvement is a short-term bump –- the region didn't crash as hard as many places in the recession -– or something more sustainable. But it mostly boils down to one sector of the economy: manufacturing.

Last year was a good one for the business of making things, said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at Brookings and one of the report's co-authors, and Midwestern regions where things still get made fared fairly well.

“Business services and manufacturing were responsible for most of the growth that happened in U.S. metro areas last year,” he said. “St. Louis still has a pretty robust manufacturing sector, and that drove a lot of the growth in the region.”

Of course, St. Louis has long been a place where companies make things and sell them. What is starting to change is who's buying, and that's why global rankings such as Brookings' are telling.

Only one of the world's 30 fastest-growing economies –- Houston –- is in North America, Brookings said. Most were in Asia, and a few in Latin America. There's growing demand in those places for U.S.-made goods.

Tapping those markets is a little more complex than simply opening a sales office in Chicago, but local economic development officials say it is something St. Louis must do if the region hopes to hitch its wagon more firmly to the global economy.

That was the idea behind the now-stalled bid to bring Chinese air cargo flights to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. And it is the idea driving a wide range of efforts to boost exports and international trade in the region.

Gov. Jay Nixon touted export growth on a visit to a Bel-Ridge chemical manufacturer last week, noting that Missouri exported $10.6 billion through the first nine months of 2011, up 13 percent from the same period in 2010. The company –- Jost Chemical –- gets about one-tenth of its revenue from Europe, said CEO Jerry Jost, and boosted sales there last year by 50 percent.

Nixon aims to keep growing exports by making it easier for smaller companies to find foreign clients, and through trade trips –- like one he took last fall to China.

“We're competing with economies around the world,” Nixon said. “We want to make sure we're selling Missouri all over the world.”

This week a delegation from St. Louis County is traveling through Indonesia, whose capital, Jakarta, came in 17th in the Brookings' rankings.

The trip, which includes representatives of Monsanto, Boeing Co., and Emerson Electric, hasn't resulted in any signed deals yet, but it's the kind of thing St. Louis should be doing, Berube said. If the region wants to keep building on its momentum of the last few years, it needs to help local manufacturers get a piece of the global supply chain, and that means going out and finding that supply chain, wherever on the globe it may be.

“You've got to visit those places and bring those places here,” he said. “Americans still don't get out very much. But more and more mayors and regional economic development officials are realizing that the fate of their places hinges on how well they sell to the world.”



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