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I was disappointed in the April 21 editorial “Sister Cities bring junkets and jokes, not economic development.” With all due respect, this editorial desperately needed a more well-informed perspective.

There is little argument that our regional and national economy need help. Knowing that 95 percent of the world’s consumers and 75 percent of global purchasing power resides outside the U.S., I am surprised the editorial wasn’t advocating for a more aggressive effort to diversify Loudoun business opportunities.

Instead, the editorial – citing little real evidence – associates sister city relationships and international business development travel with “junkets and jokes.”

Well, there is nothing funny about the state of Washington, D.C.’s area economy. According to The Brookings Institution, D.C. regional economic growth is ranked 56th out of the top 76th domestic markets.

Virginia’s economic growth won’t bring much of a laugh, either. The Old Dominion grew just 1 percent last year, and not at all in 2014. The culprit, in both cases: the slowdown in federal spending and hiring, a condition that shows no sign of changing.

Keep in mind, those pathetic growth stats were boosted by Loudoun’s outstanding performance in fiscal 2015: $1.3 billion in commercial investment, the most of any jurisdiction in Virginia.

How exactly are we going to diversify our regional economy without a more aggressive approach to marketing Loudoun County to the world? The answer is: we won’t. The only solution is to identify new opportunities, both domestically and internationally.

Here is what exports and foreign investments mean to America. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, exports support more than 11.3 million U.S. jobs, and U.S. metropolitan areas exported more than $1.4 trillion in goods last year. 

No thanks to the D.C. region. Even though the international gateway to the nation’s capital – Dulles International Airport – is in our front yard.

According to the Commerce Department, the D.C. metro area is 23rd in the nation in the dollar volume of exports, at $13.1 billion in 2014. I am sure Greenville, S.C. is a lovely community, but how is the nation’s capital region trailing that Southern city in exports by the tune of $2.1 billion.

One national economic bright spot is in direct foreign investment. According to the Organization for International Investment, Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S. Grew 26 percent, or $61 billion, in 2014. Globally, this is a $1.5 trillion sector.

Would the Loudoun Times-Mirror prefer we ignore this opportunity?

Where do sister cities fit into this? According to Sister Cities International, though there are a little more than 2,100 sister city relationships in the U.S., they contributed more than $525 million to the U.S. economy last year.

Here in Loudoun, sister city relationships helped open the doors and build the trust that helped four foreign companies recently decide to invest in our community.

An essential element in an effective international business development program is the personal involvement of elected officials, including on trade missions. Elected leaders help open doors to senior government, business and economic development officials in most foreign countries. That is why Governor [Terry] McAuliffe is so busy visiting international markets on behalf of Virginia’s companies.

While the editorialist may not have heard of Loudoun’s sister cities, you may be more familiar with Seoul, Frankfurt, Taipei and Beijing. For just as Loudoun is the international gateway to the U.S. capital city, so do our sister cities provide access to some of the world’s fastest growing regional economies.

In a year when too many presidential candidates are foolishly advocating fewer economic ties between the United States and our trading partners, counties like Loudoun have to step up and demonstrate leadership to forge new economic and cultural ties with our allies.

Sure, the sister cities program should be reexamined regularly for effectiveness and the prudent investment of taxpayer dollars. But please don’t accept the notion, as the editorial states, that “we’re living on a small planet now. Connections are instantaneous. Almost anyone can create relationships and conduct business with people throughout the world.”

That’s not how relationships work, in business or in life. Business, both here at home and in foreign markets, still gets done face to face. That’s no joke.

Tony Howard

Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce

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