BR-NO economic panel views Florida initiatives, successes
ORLANDO — To improve their economic fortunes, New Orleans and Baton Rouge should focus on building communities that people will want to live in rather than trying to land individual company headquarters, the deputy director of Orlando’s Office of Economic Development told a delegation of Louisiana leaders Monday.
“The days of putting every incentive you have out there to try to lure an AT&T from another state to your state — it’s over,” Brooke Bonnett said. “The reality of this generation is that they’re choosing where they want to be because of quality of life. As corny as it sounds, that’s what’s happening.”
Bonnett was part of a panel discussion on digital media attended by about 170 government, business and nonprofit leaders from Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Florida for the three-day 2013 Super Region Canvas.
The conference includes travel between Orlando and Tampa for seminars on how the cities have worked together to improve their digital media and health care industries and attack issues such as crime and poor transportation.
The seminars, which feature leaders of companies, public agencies and economic development organizations, were arranged by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc.
GNO Inc. and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber form the Southeast Super-Region Committee, which works to facilitate cooperation between the two cities on projects that would benefit both.
Orlando is home to video game maker EA Tiburon, a leader in the digital media industry — a sector Louisiana is working to attract.
The Orlando company employs about 800 people, with an average salary of nearly $95,000, said Alex Chatfield, director of operational development for EA Sports.
The central Florida region also houses the headquarters of Full Sail, a for-profit university that trains students for careers in digital media.
Orlando has been investing in its digital media industry since 2003, Bonnett told the Louisiana delegation.
The push came after EA Tiburon realized that only about 17 percent of its employees were coming from Florida and worried that would soon mean a workforce shortage.
The city, state and University of Central Florida responded by building a “creative village” that houses technology-focused businesses as well as the Florida Interactive Entertainment Agency, a “finishing school” that graduates about 60 students a year who go on to work for companies like EA and Lockheed Martin, Bonnett said.
“The reality is that we’ve all entered a knowledge-based economy, and that’s what this village is going to focus on,” Bonnett said. “We’re creating a place where these businesses can thrive.”
After listening to the stories of successes in Orlando, several members of the Louisiana delegation questioned the speakers on replicating the strategy back home.
They asked about what type of education, political collaboration and business environment New Orleans and Baton Rouge should endeavor to create to generate similar success.
“I think what’s important is that we don’t focus in Orlando on recruiting an industry or landing the next big company here,” Bonnett said.
“At the end of the day, our jobs are to make sure that this is a place that people want to live, because companies come and go. Studios ebb and flow. Doors open, doors shut.
“But in order to sustain an industry, you have to have a community that people want to live in, which means they need a performing arts center, they need parks to go to. They need a good transportation system. They need a good restaurant. All of those things matter.”
The discussion raised the ire of East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, who took issue with Chatfield’s explanation of why EA needs to train more workers in the Orlando area as the company expands.
“At the beginning, hiring five, 10, 15 people a year was good enough, and we could get some locally, but a lot of them came from out of state,” Chatfield had said. “Now we’re talking about having to hire 20, 30, 40 people at a time.
“We need people to be from here locally because we need to turn around quickly, and we also want to grow this industry around here so that it will be easier to get the talent that we need.”
Holden said he took Chatfield’s comments to mean that EA is not serious about its commitment to Baton Rouge and LSU. The game maker has a testing facility on the university’s campus aligned with LSU’s Center for Computation & Technology.
“How are you saying what you don’t have, when you have it right there in Baton Rouge?” Holden said.
Chatfield said EA is still committed to the testing facility in Baton Rouge and is working to adjust the curriculum at its program there to create more students ready for the workforce immediately after graduation.
“It takes time and patience,” he said. “If (the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy) were here, I think FIEA would say that it took 10 years to put this together, in order for us to feel like they were putting out the kind of student that we could use on a regular basis. …We’re moving along with LSU. It takes time.”
Holden wasn’t satisfied with answer, but he was told to hold the rest of his comments for a one-on-one discussion after the presentation.
Monday’s leg of the trip also included panel discussions on transportation and health care.
The former featured a presentation on Orlando’s efforts to construct SunRail, an entirely privately funded commuter rail system connecting central and south Florida.
The state has a larger pool of infrastructure funding options than Louisiana.
In addition to having a wealth of private resources, Florida, unlike Louisiana, funds many of its infrastructure projects using a sales tax on fuel and through revenue generated from toll roads, one of which can cost as much as $13 to travel. Neither idea has been a popular option in Louisiana.