Editors note: Houston is in the running to be the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed free trade zone that, if established, would dwarf the European Common Market. George Marshall Worthington images what Houston would look like in 2050 if it was home to the FTAA Secretariat.
Never heard of it? The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was the single most important multilateral undertaking in world history back in 2025, and the principal vehicle for free trade, in the Western Hemisphere. Since coming into force, the FTAA has facilitated the movement of goods and services from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, enriching the lives of over 800 million people in 34 countries with a collective GDP well in excess of 15 trillion dollars.
Just as important, Houston is the headquarters for the FTAA Secretariat — an economic and international gem.
In looking back, the economic benefits of being the capital for the FTAA have equaled or surpassed other things for which Houston was known: the Medical Center, NASA, the American energy industry and the Port of Houston, though the latter was integral to Houston’s acquiring the FTAA Secretariat.
Benefits include more than $13 billion a year in direct expenditures and over 190,000 jobs. A few examples . . . 12 more countries set up diplomatic operations in Houston and all the consular operations were upgraded to ambassadorial status and greatly increased the size of their trade delegations in Houston. Every major NGO regarding human rights, labor, trade, the environment and international relations set up a presence in Houston to interact with the new FTAA Secretariat.
The FTAA brings in another $15 billion annually to Houston by drawing business travelers and generating support services.
Above all, it has brought unparalleled international prestige to Houston — much as Brussels gained as the heart of the European Union (EU).
The EU presence in Brussels created significant social and economic impact. Some observers went so far as to say the prosperity of Brussels was “a consequence of the European presence". As well as EU institutions themselves, large companies were drawn to the city due to the EU presence. In total about 10 percent of that city has a connection to the international community. The FTAA Secretariat has impacted Houston in much the same way.
Especially sweet was who we beat out in landing the FTAA Secretariat! Houston's competitors were Chicago, Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Galveston, Miami, Cancun, Panama City, Port-of-Spain, San Juan and Puebla. All these cities along with Houston were evaluated on transportation infrastructure, hotel accommodations, telecommunications, security, human resources, quality of life and other issues, in accordance with a memorandum from the Trade Negotiations Committee. Houston scored high in all categories.
It is clear that strategies boosting Houston’s selection to host the FTAA Secretariat included a strong lobbying effort among the 34 member nations giving maximum exposure to Houston’s obvious strengths: the Port, the Medical Center, our affordable cost of living, strategic location and our cultural and artistic assets including our world class opera, ballet, theater and symphony. Our congressional delegation set aside the usual antipathy over the presence of international institutions on American soil, came together and kept their eyes on the prize.
Clout from the likes of former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State James A. Baker was leveraged. This was economic hardball and we played the game exceptionally well, forgetting for the moment our usual laissez-faire attitude to economic development.
At the time of the campaign more than 2,100 Houston companies traded with the Americas and more than 600 Houston subsidiaries operated in the region (numbers which have doubled since the FTAA Secretariat came to Houston). Through the mechanism of the Greater Houston Partnership, every one of those CEOs became an informed and vigorous advocate for Houston. The consuls of the 22 countries of the region that maintained offices in Houston were also cultivated and brought on board. NGOs such as the World Affairs Council, Global Houston, the Baker Institute and others did their part as well. The strategy became a blueprint for economic development going forward.
Since the FTAA began calling Houston home, figures show that trade with the Americas through the Port of Houston has more than doubled now being in excess of $30 billion. Air passenger and cargo traffic showed comparable or greater increases. Owing to Houston being the host city for the FTAA Secretariat, Texas continues to be the No. 1 exporter to the region among U.S. states.
These and every other indicator proved that Houston’s future competitiveness was secured by bringing the world to Houston, including the FTAA Secretariat.
George Marshall Worthington is a Houston-based international marketing consultant.