This dissertation asks what role local public agencies might play in regional economic development through the market-shaping institutions they create and sustain. Recent economic geography literature has sought to account for patterns of regional development in terms of institutional differences across space. Research has sought to identify and understand these institutions, defined as taken for granted formal and informal rules, practices, norms and patterns of behavior. However, the current literature is vague about the role of public policy, and often ignores extra-regional economic forces.
This dissertation confronts these problems directly by examining the institutionalized relationship between one type of local public agency, port authorities, and one global industry, automobile manufacturers. The evidence presented in this dissertation consists of case studies of two public port authorities (Baltimore and Long Beach) and various automobile importers (Toyota, Honda, Mercedes and Volkswagen), supported by documentary and economic data. The research strategy involves tracing the consequences for the geography of automobile import activity of institutional change in public ports.
I argue that the economic geography of automobile import and distribution activities can be systematically related to changes in the planning, leasing, pricing, and management policies of US public port authorities. Firms using such public infrastructure seek a relational fix, or an appropriate set of institutionalized relationships, that allows them to overcome the uncertainties associated with investment and other economic actions. How port authorities go about providing infrastructure -- the planning policies they promote, the financing mechanisms they employ, the contracts they enter into, the labor relations they sustain, the organizations they create -- these institutions all support particular relational fixes and devalue others. Changes in these institutions arising from the process of containerization have changed the actual and potential relationships between infrastructure providers and users. In turn, this influenced both the patterns of port usage and infrastructure investment decisions.
The findings indicate the local public agencies are able to influence regional economic development outcomes through attention to the institutions governing the relationships between multinational firms and other economic actors. A central challenge for local public agencies is to achieve institutional compatibility with a diversity of economic actors, in a way that is both responsive to changes in industry organization and accountable to local communities. For planners in particular, this implies paying closer attention to the way in which institutions influence actual and potential public-private relationships.