The second SelectUSA Investment Summit, held this week at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Washington DC, was by any measure an unqualified success.
Hosted by the U.S. Commerce Dept., SelectUSA gave economic development agencies from across the country the opportunity to showcase their locations to well-heeled delegations from around the world shopping for places to park their foreign direct investment dollars, euros, rubles, shekels and other assorted currencies.
SelectUSA also offered a well-rounded and informative conference program featuring A-list titans of industry leading their peers–and a few sitting governors–in panel discussions on hot-button issues like workforce training and advanced manufacturing.
Befitting its stature as the USA’s big-ticket economic development hoedown, the 2015 Investment Summit received salutations from a couple of guys who know a thing or two about maximizing ROI: Warren Buffet greeted attendees via a video link (hey, the Oracle of Omaha didn’t become one of the richest humans on the planet by wasting his bucks on plane tickets); Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, in the flesh and looking chummy in a magenta sweater, sat on stage for a luncheon interview conducted by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
Pritzker lobbed softballs and let Schmidt get away with some doozies (like lauding U.S. copyright laws, of which Google has been alleged to be the biggest violator in history), but it was nonetheless a fascinating chat. The Commerce Sec neglected to ask Schmidt to explain what he meant when he casually remarked that Google and Apple are companies that have “a completely different set of values.” With one tech giant trying to strap the Web onto our wrists and the other vying to drive our cars for us, forgive us for suspecting that both of these outfits have the same goal: to take over the world as we know it, one way or the other.
We were at the inaugural SelectUSA event in October 2013, which, frankly, had a not-ready-for-prime-time feel to it. The 2013 version kicked off on Halloween and promptly left exhibitors at the pioneer summit in Washington feeling tricked rather than treated thanks to a snafu engineered by the U.S. Secret Service.
The 2013 SelectUSA Exhibit Hall was scheduled to open at 11 a.m.–before President Obama’s luncheon speech to the gathering–but the Secret Service sealed the venue early that Monday morning and wouldn’t let any shipping cartons move in or out. So attendees walking into the Hall were greeted by the sight of booths in various states of construction, mainly piles of boxes. The venue itself left a lot to be desired, with exhibitors squeezed between pillars that reminded us of bad seats at Wrigley Field.
What a difference 17 months can make. The spacious hall in the Gaylord at SelectUSA 2015–offering spectacular sunset views of the National Harbor waterfront–was filled with fully equipped exhibitors representing just about every state in the Union as well as several regional and metro powerhouses. The ballrooms, meeting rooms and show floor were packed with eager attendees from all over the world.
Dealmaking was in the air, but so was conviviality. At one reception, we found ourselves noshing appetizers shoulder to shoulder with two fellows from India and a gentleman from Toronto who informed us that the Stanley Cup is “on loan” to the U.S. and should be returned to Canada with all due haste. A businessman from Mexico was pitching a cross-border factory expansion to state officials.
The Obama Administration pulled out all the stops to ensure that SelectUSA delivered a “wow” factor. It seemed like most of the president’s Cabinet was on hand and participating in some capacity, either joining panel discussions or speaking to general sessions–including a jetlagged Secretary of State John Kerry, who took a break from intense nuclear negotiations with the Iranians in Switzerland to hop across the pond to deliver the closing remarks at SelectUSA. Milling around with a Japanese delegation in the ballroom awaiting President Obama’s luncheon speech was none other than Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, who’s now serving as the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Which brings us to the one off-key note that was sounded at SelectUSA, which we’re disappointed to say was delivered by the person who is credited with (and deserves credit for) creating this groundbreaking event: President Obama.
It was bad enough that the president was 90 minutes late for his speech. [Editor’s Note: The luncheon started at 12:30 p.m. As desserts were being cleared from ballroom tables, word filtered in that the president would arrive at 2:15 p.m., which was the same time the Exhibit Hall opened and program sessions were scheduled to resume. Obama walked into the ballroom at 2:30; rumor has it a tractor-trailer jackknifed on the access road to the Gaylord and delayed the president’s motorcade, but we were not able to verify that].
In the middle of a rather pedestrian delivery touting the benefits of doing business in the U.S.–and improvements in education and infrastructure he has proposed in the federal budget he’s sent to Congress–Obama couldn’t resist the temptation to take a direct shot at his intractable foes on Capitol Hill. After reciting his laundry list of accomplishments and proposed improvements, Obama paused for effect and churlishly added: “I recognize there’s something called Congress here and there are going to be some negotiations taking place. So far, Republicans in Congress have put forward a different kind of budget, but I’m confident that we can find a way forward.”
Talk about putting your worst foot forward. The last thing an international audience of deep-pocketed investors primed to do business in the U.S. needed to hear was a reminder of the poisonous political atmosphere in the gridlocked swamp of Washington. Our president has a lot of nasty stuff to deal with on his plate right now, including the rising threat of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, so we’re going to give Obama the benefit of the doubt that he was having an off day.
But Obama’s awkward political swipe raises a larger question when it’s viewed within the context of how SelectUSA has been packaged and presented by the Commerce Dept. While Pritzker and her team deserve kudos for building an impressive showcase for U.S. economic development–from coast to coast, for “red” states and “blue” states and everyone in between–the brightest spotlights at both versions of SelectUSA to date have deliberately been trained on the Obama Administration and its friends and allies. It’s worth noting that Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico was the only top GOP officeholder formally invited to take part in the official program at the 2015 event.
If SelectUSA is going to continue to flourish as the premier U.S. economic development showcase for foreign investors–and we certainly hope that it does–that partisan tilt needs to be ditched now.
There will be a new president in the White House if and when SelectUSA 2017 is held. It would be a real shame if the 45th president carries forward the partisan meme that was imbedded in the first two versions of this event, or–even worse–puts an end to SelectUSA because it was perceived as “Obama’s show.”
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