Report cites BR, N.O., Houma economic links

A report says the metro areas of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Houma-Thibodaux need to collaborate to diversify their economies and keep up with fast-growing Southern cities.

Local economic development leaders said they welcomed the study released Tuesday by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center because it confirms that their efforts to strengthen regional ties are on the right track.

“This supports the direction we had begun moving in,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development alliance that serves the 10 parishes around New Orleans. “To compete with other markets, we need a critical mass that takes us to the next step.”

Several years ago, board members from GNO Inc. and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber came together to form the Southeast Super-Region Committee to foster cooperation on issues of mutual interest for both cities, such as education reform, boosting international trade, coastal restoration, inter-regional transportation, and airport and flight connectivity. Last year, the group won a gold medal from the International Economic Development Council for “Regionalism and Cross-border Collaboration.”

More projects are in the works to boost the ties between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The two cities are teaming up for a joint visit to Tampa and Orlando, Fla., this fall to further develop a super-regional economic development policy, Hecht said. And the cities will co-host a south Louisiana tour for site selectors, he said.

“Our alignment happened fairly well,” said Adam Knapp, BRAC president and CEO.

Now it’s just a matter of folding in Houma-Thibodaux to the ongoing efforts, he said.

The GNOCDC study said the three south Louisiana cities have key industries in common, such as sophisticated heavy construction, engineering and scientific consulting, higher education and water transportation.

But these mature legacy industries are projected to have sluggish growth over the next few years. The three cities are projected to see annual job growth increase by 1.4 percent a year through 2020. In contrast, the super region of Austin-San Antonio and major cities such as Houston, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., are all projected to see job growth of more than 2 percent a year over that same period.

GNOCDC said the southeast Louisiana region has a number of existing connections. For example, the oil and gas industry served by Houma-Thibodaux’s Port Fourchon and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port provides the feedstocks that are used by the petrochemical and chemical plants in metro Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“We’re very intertwined on a workforce basis,” Knapp said. “There’s a lot of migration from the workforces in the region.”

The report said this interconnection and experience in areas needs to be directed toward emerging industries, an idea that mirrors the state’s “blue ocean” initiative for economic development. In the blue ocean strategy, Louisiana stakes out economic development opportunities that haven’t been exploited by other states.

One blue ocean initiative that plays into southeast Louisiana’s strengths is the industry for rebuilding coastal marshes, which utilizes the regional expertise in heavy construction and engineering. The report said not only could this shore up key components of the south Louisiana economy, such as refineries, ports and chemical plants, but it could be used to protect other areas of the country that face increased flood risks.

Southeast Louisiana cities, along with the Louisiana Economic Development department, are pursuing similar business opportunities in an effort to diversify their economies, the report said. BRAC and GNO Inc. are looking for opportunities in digital media and software design.

The south Louisiana Economic Development Council in Thibodaux is pursuing opportunities in equipment manufacturing and metal fabrication, similar to the fabricated structural materials that BRAC has targeted and the advanced manufacturing sought by GNO Inc.

Hecht said that while all three regions have worked together on an ad hoc basis on certain issues, such as the federal moratorium on offshore drilling that came down in the wake of the BP disaster, the goal is to formalize a more efficient relationship.

“We’ve made assumptions about a lot of our strengths and now we have great data as we work forward,” Knapp said.