Houston, Texas's biggest city and the fourth most populous in the US, may not stand out among the many options in the US as a key destination for FDI. However, in fDi Magazine's latest American Cities of the Future awards, which ranks cities by their investment potential, Houston came second only to New York City among US cities. Houston scored highly for its talent pool, infrastructure and business friendliness.
The high ranking was unsurprising, according to the city's mayor, Annise Parker. “We have the highest number of engineers per capita in the country, we are the gateway to the heartland of the US, we are one of the busiest ports and we have excellent rail and road connections with Mexico,” she says. All of this is offered in a low-tax, right-to-work state that is considered by many to be the most pro-business in the whole of the US.
In 2011, Houston's gross metro product (GMP) grew at 3.8%, twice the US average for the year. While a lot of this had to do with the renaissance of the oil and gas sector, Ms Parker is keen to point out that Houston is also a major technology centre and home to a large biomedical cluster.
“We are the largest medical complex in the world and home of space flight. Plus the oil and gas industry is also very high-tech nowadays. A valve is a valve, whether it is a tiny one in a human heart or a huge one on a drilling rig,” she says.
As much as Houston may be successful in positioning itself as a hub for blue-chip companies and other foreign investments, it still has some way to go in presenting itself as an attractive place to live.
“There is this image of Houston as a redneck wasteland and, also, a lot of people picture Texas as covered by cacti and tumbleweed,” admits Ms Parker. “But when people come here they discover that we have access to all the cultural and sport amenities, while being more affordable than New York or Los Angeles,” she says.
Houston is also much more diverse a city than is commonly perceived, and more than 20% of its residents are foreign born. “Such diversity can be seen as our secret weapon," says Ms Parker. "Historically, people have been coming to Houston to make their fortunes. You can replicate the geography, you can replicate having strong business sectors, but you cannot really replicate the attitude that Houstonians have."
She says that 'Houston spirit' can be characterised as a blend between southern hospitality and openness to new ideas and a focus on results. Ms Parker's own election to the position of mayor is a prime example of this. In 2009, her success in the mayoral race gathered a lot of media attention as she became one of the first openly gay mayors of a major American city.
“A lot of folks back then said 'Really? That happened in Houston? That is not the Texas we remember'. Well, Houstonians are more interested in what you bring to the table and what you can do to make a difference. They want to know whether I am competent enough to run the city, rather than who I come back home to,” she says.