Cities throughout the Americas have offered buildings, cheap air fares, cash incentives and promises of high security and hospitality in their bids to host the headquarters for a hemispheric free trade area.

Formal proposals for the permanent secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas were due this week. Nearly a dozen cities said they submitted bids.

The offers promised FTAA officials everything from free land and newly constructed buildings to half-price air travel, discounted hotels and low tuition at local universities.

Miami, seen as a lead contender by officials in and out of the United States, touted its Latin culture and US infrastructure. It offered two pieces of coveted, uncluttered and centrally located waterfront property with a $16 million building paid for by the city, state and private businesses.

“Everyone has to concede that it’s Miami’s to lose,” said Paul O’Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago, the group leading Chicago’s bid for the headquarters.

But Atlanta is pushing hard as well. The city, home to dozens of international corporations such as Coca-Cola Co. (KO.N) and BellSouth Corp. said it too would pay for a building but left the location and design open. The city would not release cost estimates but said it had funds commitments.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain, Panama City and Puebla, Mexico, have campaigned aggressively as well.

Government and business leaders there have repeatedly argued against placing the headquarters in the United States, not least because of immigration and travel restrictions imposed by the US government following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Juan Kiener, president of food products company Productos Kiener in Panama and backer of the Panama City bid, said the largest benefit of non-US locations was the lack of strict visa requirements.

Jorge Arrizurieta, executive director of the group running Miami’s bid, acknowledged visa problems, but said he does not expect them to directly impact the headquarters decision.


The winning city will house the administrative center of the FTAA, and potentially gain millions of dollars in investments as lawyers, accountants, lobbyists and businesses gather, economists and city officials say.

Miami, Port of Spain and Panama City are regularly listed as front-runners. Invariably, one of those names is swapped out by officials from other cities speaking about their chances.

Panama City may appeal to many countries, both because it is Latin and has a developed transportation infrastructure.

“International trade experts see Panama as the best site,” said Nivia Rossana Castrellon, Panama’s foreign affairs vice minister. “It is completely neutral, has excellent transport routes, and could play a key role in international trade in the Americas.”

Port of Spain, however, appears to have the most support, at least numerically. The city has the backing of its Caribbean neighbors and Costa Rica, securing 16 of a possible 34 votes.

But the winning city will not be decided by a majority vote. The FTAA requires consensus, meaning all countries must agree on the issue.

Seeing that, Miami’s strategy has been to secure second-choice support from a majority of FTAA nations and thereby grab the secretariat on the theory that no candidate city will be the first choice of all members.

The winner may be chosen next year, but that depends on the timing of final negotiations for the trade agreement. (Reuters)