KANSAS CITY — Increased exports could turn the economy around, and business and civic leaders want to make sure Kansas City isn't left behind.
As part of that push, they announced Wednesday that the World Trade Center Association's North American regional meeting will be held in Kansas City in May. The event will be at Union Station, which also will be the new home of World Trade Center Kansas City.
It's part of a recharged effort to boost the area economy by expanding its global reach.
"We believe expanding global trade relationships will be a key factor in growing the Kansas City regional economy over time," said James Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
In a new collaborative effort, several area groups have dusted off Kansas City's membership in the World Trade Center Association, dormant since the late 1980s. The groups plan to be actively involved with the global trade organization, which counts 326 members in 92 countries.
The World Trade Center Kansas City services will include hosting and mounting trade missions and events, educating international trade professionals and providing a variety of other services to help businesses large and small develop new trade relationships.
"This collaborative effort will open new markets for regional companies, creating growth and new jobs for our region," said Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council.
Representatives from about 60 World Trade Centers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are expected at the Kansas City meeting, which runs May 16 to 17.
Heeter said the Kansas City metropolitan area already exported nearly $9 billion a year in goods and services, nearly 10 percent of gross regional product.
"That's a lot, but we think it can be much more," he said.
Exports in the Kansas City metropolitan area grew 7.5 percent between 2003 and 2008, a rate that ranked 63rd among the nation's largest 100 metro areas, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. The U.S. average during that period was 9.2 percent.
Canada was Kansas City's largest market in 2008 with $1.346 billion in exports, according to Brookings, followed by Mexico, $690 million; the United Kingdom, $586 million; Japan, $531 million; and Germany, $423 million.
Overall, the Brookings report estimated there were 77,465 export-related jobs in the Kansas City area.
The chamber and the Kansas City Area Development Council are joining KC SmartPort and the International Trade Council of Greater Kansas City in promoting the World Trade Center initiative.
And the World Trade Center push is not the only trade-related activity coming up for the area.
Later this month, the chamber is sending a 100-member trade delegation to China. And from May 18 to 20, right after the North American regional meeting of the WTC, Kansas City will be the host for Futurallia at Bartle Hall.
Futurallia is described as a global business match-making event, and this will be the first time it's held in the United States. The annual event draws entrepreneurs and small-business owners from as many as 40 countries.
To Dan Ward, co-owner of Western Forms, stepping up the region's engagement in international trade couldn't come at a better time. His Kansas City company makes the aluminum forms used to pour concrete for buildings.
The U.S. market had been 90 percent of his sales until the economic downturn. Now, more than half the work done by his 50-employee business is for international customers in 40 countries, primarily in Latin America and Mexico.
"The new World Trade Center and the involvement the International Trade Council has taken on are going to benefit us," he said.
"It will basically open us up to all the resources and connections of the World Trade Centers around the world."
Exports are expected to become an increasingly large part of the U.S. economy. Recently, President Barack Obama announced a national export initiative with the goal of doubling the nation's exports over the next five years.
Emilia Istrate, a senior research analyst at Brookings, said Kansas City has an opportunity to accelerate the pace of exports. Transportation equipment manufacturing, including vehicles and vehicle parts, has been the area's top export sector, with 17 percent of the total.
"I'm very happy to hear that Kansas City leaders are thinking about opening up more to the international market," Istrate said.
The area also has major engineering and architectural firms engaged in international business including Black & Veatch, Burns & McDonnell, 360 Architecture and Populous.
The new, more collaborative approach to international trade was approved earlier this week by the chamber board. Union Station was chosen for its symbolic and practical value.
The chamber, KCADC and KC SmartPort moved to Union Station in December. And the International Trade Council, a volunteer organization of professionals, students and academics interested in trade issues, is moving from its home for 66 years.
"We see this partnership as a golden opportunity to truly collaborate for the betterment of the community," said Tina Roth, president of the trade council.
The World Trade Center Kansas City will be staffed by employees with the four regional groups to start. Within a year, however, the new organization should have its own full-time staff of three people.