Mayor Landrieu touts economic plan

“My message to you is, we have to change if you want  to compete internationally with people that,  because they started changing a long time ago,  have gotten further ahead of us.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu

A group of business and civic leaders convened by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration unveiled a five-year strategic plan for growing the city’s economy Monday, an effort to get local government, businesses and universities all cooperating to bring more high-paying jobs to New Orleans.

The plan, drawn up by the quasi-public New Orleans Business Alliance, is outlined in a sprawling, 63-page report titled, “Prosperity NOLA,” the product of more than 200 committee members organized around five different industry groups, or “clusters.” The hope is to expand sectors of the economy — outside of the already well-organized tourism industry — where New Orleans has a relatively strong base to work with.

The plan lacks any sort of blockbuster proposal. There’s no pitch for erecting a new stadium or making dramatic changes to the local tax code. There’s no specific number of new jobs the city hopes to create in five years. City Hall itself is slated to play a modest role, and no money has been earmarked from city coffers to execute the blueprint.

But the mayor and other officials who introduced the plan Monday said it will provide a framework for local government, businesses and educators to partner and focus on a set of concrete goals, something Landrieu argues the city has never had before.

In remarks to a packed ballroom at the Hyatt Regency downtown, the mayor hit on the same themes that ran through his State of the City speech last month, framing the plan as a way of building on the city’s nascent reputation as a good place to do business and warning that New Orleans will have to give up some of its famed attachment to the past in order to make it work.

“We’ve been doing the same thing the same way for a long period of time, and the question is, where has that gotten us?” Landrieu said. “My message to you is, we have to change if you want to compete internationally with people that, because they started changing a long time ago, have gotten further ahead of us.”

Most of the broad aims identified by committee members are familiar ones: drawing more venture capital to the region, tailoring education and training programs to the needs of local businesses, promoting entrepreneurialism and giving minority-owned companies a bigger place in the economy.

“The idea is that the economic pie gets bigger, and more people get a bite of the pie,” said New Orleans Business Alliance CEO Rod Miller.

New industry councils organized around each sector are supposed to meet at regular intervals and push toward a set of specific steps. Some are relatively concrete — for example, “Develop an incubator to support small business growth.” Others are more vague and represent long-standing ambitions: “Build on existing plans to restore the Louisiana coast.”

The plan draws on an approach to economic development known as a “cluster strategy,” which involves analyzing a region’s strengths and weaknesses in order to figure out where to focus resources.

The idea has had a tangible impact in places like San Diego, where a university spinoff called Connect helps local technology and life sciences companies get funding, said Joseph Cortright, an economist who has written about cluster strategies for the Brookings Institution.

“The devil is in the details,” Cortright said. “There are good cluster strategies and bad ones, depending on the type of analysis that goes into them. And then, of course, you have to execute.”

The New Orleans Business Alliance, a nonprofit funded mainly by City Hall, brought in a wide swath of local businesses and civic groups to help develop the city’s plan, an effort led by Leslie Jacobs, a prominent local advocate for education reform, and Traffic Court Judge Ronald Sholes, a partner at Adams and Reese.

A 75-member advisory committee narrowed the 13 most prominent sectors of the local economy to five in order to focus the group’s attention on areas where New Orleans has already shown some promise in creating jobs. Then subcommittees of 20 to 30 people assigned to each industry cluster came up with recommendations for how to promote growth. The list of committee members included notables from almost every conceivable local business and organization, from the law firm Jones Walker to the Urban League, as well as major international players like Google and JP Morgan Chase.

The industry groups they focused in on include: transportation, trade and logistics; sustainable industries such as waste management and renewable energy; creative digital media; bioinnovation and health services; and advanced manufacturing.

Research commissioned by the Business Alliance showed those sectors have a relatively strong local presence in New Orleans, offering a starting point to build on what already seems to be working. For instance, in advanced manufacturing, a sector that includes aerospace and shipbuilding companies, the Alliance found 2,500 jobs in New Orleans that pay salaries of about $55,200 on average, better than the citywide average by more than $5,000.

The sector has promising local strengths like NASA’s enormous Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, the report notes, but trouble recruiting enough skilled workers. So the strategic plan includes the goal, “Improve workforce training programs,” with the aim of collaborating with Delgado and developing an outreach program for middle and high schools among other steps.

The Alliance has drawn up a similar set of goals for each sector, organizing them according to different themes, or “strands.”

Landrieu and the Alliance gave particular weight to the theme of improving equity, nodding to long-standing complaints about small, minority-owned firms getting shut out of the rebuilding that followed Hurricane Katrina. Miller cited statistics that show a larger income disparity between blacks and whites than anywhere in the country, and a new study that found 52 percent of working-age black men in New Orleans are jobless.

“Unless we can all go together,” Landrieu said, “we shouldn’t go at all.”