|Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the Northshore set aside an entrenched rivalry to flex their combined political and economic muscle.|
Three years into an organized effort to give southeastern Louisiana a more powerful voice in its economic future, leaders of the fledgling initiative say it has found its wings. The Southeast Super-Region Committee, formed to unite the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Northshore areas behind shared business goals, has begun to live up to its promise, they say. One side effect could be consolidation among other area business groups down the road.
Billed as “an unprecedented partnership” at the time of its launch in 2009 by members of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc., the committee claims success in several areas in its mission of economic growth.
Its leaders say the group was instrumental in winning legislative approval of measures that could give Louisiana State University more heft as the state's flagship university, and that the committee made headway in expanding international commerce through a trade mission to Brazil. They say it has also secured a seat at the table in discussions on how to improve the state's largest airport.
Flexing muscle in these areas requires political clout, and the committee's founding chairman, hotel and shopping center developer Roger Ogden, says the organization has the goods.
The 19 parishes that constitute the super-region stretch from West Feliciana Parish eastward to Washington Parish and south to the tip of Plaquemines Parish, encompassing not only New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but dozens of smaller cities and the most heavily traveled portion of the lower Mississippi River.
Ogden notes that the region holds close to half of the state's population, workers and businesses, including most of Louisiana's largest companies. The area accounts for more than 60% of state sales taxes, according to figures compiled by local chambers. It also contains most of the state's universities, its major ports, airports, refineries and industrial plants, and in New Orleans, Louisiana's biggest tourism destination.
Population alone delivers political leverage, Ogden says. “Of 144 legislators in the state, almost half come from our super-region,” he says.
Ogden says this critical mass helped the Super-Region Committee lobby lawmakers for passage of the Grad Act of 2010 and the Angel Investors Tax Credit last year. And he believes it will be valuable in future business recruitment efforts. “I'd like to see us build on the concept of pooling our resources politically, especially around economic development legislation,” he says.
This month, Ogden will pass the reins of the committee to its next chairman, Robert Stuart Jr., who appears poised to continue on a similar track.
Stuart ticks off a list of priorities ranging from transportation infrastructure to K-12 education reform to economic development incentives. “We'll really be looking at incentives and making sure they're targeted to areas that offer the most opportunity for job growth,” he says.
The president of Capital One Bank–Louisiana, Stuart has long been active in business organizations in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and he's pleased with what the Super-Region Committee has so far achieved. “In an era where state resources are still somewhat limited, I think we've accomplished a lot,” he says.
But Stuart says the group's most significant progress may not be directly related to legislation or trade. “I think the biggest thing we've accomplished is having New Orleans and Baton Rouge realize how much they have in common,” he says.
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Through much of Louisiana's history, New Orleans has often found itself at odds with other parts of the state. But perhaps more than at any other time, events of the past several years laid bare long-running animosities between the city and its up-the-road neighbor Baton Rouge.
Nationally renowned political consultant and Louisiana native James Carville says he had a bird's-eye view of the mutual distrust and disrespect as he grew up in Iberville Parish. With family ties in both cities, he heard the trash talk from both sides. “There was a time when someone from New Orleans couldn't say ‘Baton Rouge' without some expletive in the middle of it, and vice versa,” he says.
Carville, who with his political consultant wife Mary Matalin relocated a few years ago from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, believes dissension between Louisiana's two biggest cities was rooted in cultural differences. “People in New Orleans thought Baton Rouge was kind of a backwater town, and Baton Rouge people saw New Orleans as full of debauchery,” he says.
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While those impressions have not vanished, Carville believes they are giving way to a realization that as one area improves, all will benefit. “I really have that sense,” he says. “Whatever the tensions were between the areas, it's much less than it was before.”
Carville regularly throws his weight behind area business and charitable efforts and is co-chairing with Matalin the Super Bowl XLVII Host Committee, which will oversee activities surrounding the 2013 game, to be held in New Orleans. Recently, he gathered businesspeople from around the region for a meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal in Baton Rouge to discuss cooperating in the effort.
“I think Baton Rouge understands that their quality of life is affected by the cultural center of New Orleans,” he says. “If New Orleans gets a Super Bowl, Baton Rouge gets one, too.”
Similarly, New Orleans has a vested interest in what transpires in Baton Rouge, even outside of the Capitol. “If you live in New Orleans, the whole LSU complex and business center there affects your life,” he says.
The idea that distinct regions can share overlapping interests may seem obvious to some people, but for others the concept has been hard to swallow.
Complaints of infighting and parochialism often pop up when suburban businesspeople reflect on economic development organizations of the past. Some say that even as “regionalism” became a favorite chamber buzzword during the late 1990s, many business leaders dropped the idea like a hot potato when it came to execution.
COMMUTING IN THE SUPER-REGION
Commuter traffic is a key measure of economic integration in the Southeast Super-Region.
Number of Baton Rouge workers commuting to New Orleans in 2010
Number of New Orleans workers commuting to Baton Rouge in 2010
SOURCE: Greater New Orleans Community Data Center
Destrehan businessman Henry Friloux, who was active in the original New Orleans chamber and MetroVision, which were predecessors to Greater New Orleans Inc., says he quit in disgust over what he saw as self-centered attitudes about business. “If it didn't benefit downtown or Uptown New Orleans, then nothing happened,” he says.
Friloux, who owns general contracting company Echo Ventures Inc., says he and others chafed at the disdain shown by some leaders of the old organizations toward people who lived outside the core city. “They looked at us like we didn't know what we're talking about, and it really got to be frustrating,” he says.
But Friloux says developments of recent years are easing the bitterness. Now chairman of the River Region Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Greater New Orleans Inc. board, Friloux terms the Super-Region Committee “a great idea” that can better position southeast Louisiana for economic growth.
“I think we've finally got parish governments and a lot of others to understand that parochialism is not good,” he says.
What sparked the change? Friloux and many others have a one-word answer: Katrina.
It's no secret that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 dramatically changed the lives of nearly everyone in southeast Louisiana. Deep personal and business losses produced by the catastrophe led many through a period of reassessment; relationships changed, including those among cities.
For an anguished year or two after Katrina knocked New Orleans off its feet, many doubted the city could get back up. Thousands of people whose homes were ruined in the Katrina flood had sought housing in Greater Baton Rouge, buoying the capital city's economy, and people wondered if the city might come to replace New Orleans as the state's most prominent city.
During that period, some of the animosity neighboring communities had long felt toward New Orleans rose to the surface. Newspaper articles talked of a potential “power grab” by Baton Rouge as business leaders discussed the potential of focusing economic development efforts along interstates 10 and 12, a corridor from which they initially excluded New Orleans.
Martin Mayer says he was in a prime position to watch it all unfold. The president of Covington-based Stirling Properties, he had become chairman-elect of Greater New Orleans Inc. early in 2008. Some saw his rise to the post as evidence that the 10-parish organization actually intended to fulfill its commitment to regional cooperation.
From his vantage point in St. Tammany Parish—which also received a huge influx of people from New Orleans following Katrina—Mayer saw an opportunity to change the tenor of the discussion. He called the heads of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and asked if they would come to a meeting with Greater New Orleans Inc. representatives at his office. They agreed.
“We had a frank conversation about where things were, and it opened the lines of communication,” he says.
That meeting planted the seeds of the Southeast Super-Region Committee, says Mayer, who now chairs the group's marketing task force.
The Southeast Super-Region Committee has initially focused on four areas--transportation, international trade, air service and innovation--and has reacted to other issues as they arose. Click here to see the steps that were taken or are under way.
He says the sobering experience of Katrina's aftermath let the air out of overblown hostilities among south Louisiana parishes and cities, and led many to a more realistic assessment of their assets. While both the Baton Rouge and Northshore areas benefited in certain respects from the Katrina upheaval, many who had long resented New Orleans also began to see danger in its potential demise.
“Everybody recognizes that New Orleans is the state's brand—it's not Louisiana, it's New Orleans,” Mayer says.
Some who are heartened by the progress of the Super-Region Committee say credit is due in large part to the strength of its founding organizations, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc., and their respective CEOs, Adam Knapp and Michael Hecht.
“In my view, both BRAC and GNO Inc. have been far more effective than their predecessor organizations, and we have much higher expectations of what they can actually accomplish,” incoming committee chairman Stuart says.
As those organizations raise the performance bar, other area business groups could find themselves facing scrutiny. Many businesspeople in southeast Louisiana spend considerable time and money supporting multiple local and statewide business groups.
Individuals on the Super-Region Committee, for instance, not only are members of either the Baton Rouge Area Chamber or Greater New Orleans Inc., but may also participate in groups ranging from Blueprint Louisiana and Council for a Better Louisiana to local business councils, tourism organizations and economic development groups. All the activity leaves some people feeling stretched.
“I think all the organizations have their missions, and it's important that the business community get together and fund those that do the best job of achieving the mission,” Stuart says. “But we need to hold our organizations accountable for achieving and measuring their progress.”
SIZING UP A SUPER-REGION
Launched in May 2009, the Southeast Super-Region Committee consists of 41
members nominated by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc., which together encompass 19 parishes. More...
Mayer puts it more bluntly. “I think some organizations have cropped up to fill a vacuum in leadership,” he says. “They all need funding, and they all go to the same places to get it.”
In his view, any organization should have distinct goals and a clear path to achieve them. “If it's not clearly defined and there isn't any area where an organization is taking a lead and being influential, then that organization is superfluous,” he says.
Mayer is becoming more selective about his participation. “If I don't think it's effective, I won't put my money or my time into it,” he says.
Meanwhile, he hopes to keep businesspeople focused on the merits of regional cooperation and the work of the Super-Region Committee. He worries that as the Katrina catastrophe slips further into the past, the insights it brought could also fade from memory.
“You have a lot of new people moving into New Orleans, and economically it's doing well,” he says. “I want to make sure that we don't lose sight of that story and begin going backwards.”
Carville, who teaches public policy classes at Tulane University, believes the key to holding on to such gains lies with young people. As they mature and become business owners and managers, these up-and-comers will imbue business organizations with their own strengths, he says.
“One of the great things about the younger people in this country is, they don't allow themselves to be infected by our prejudices,” he says. “I see it in my students at Tulane—it's not what they're about.”
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