Stephanie Riegel: It’s time to stop ignoring our shortcomings

Earlier this summer, Amedisys confirmed it will open a “satellite office” in either Nashville or New Orleans that will house the majority of the home health care company’s executive team, including CEO Paul Kusserow. The company was quick to point out the move is not a relocation of the corporate headquarters—even though it looks suspiciously like one—but is merely an alternate location at which the corporate brain trust will be based.

“Our corporate headquarters remain in Baton Rouge, where we have a long history and 500 employees,” says a company spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, Albemarle also is giving Baton Rouge a hard look. Word on the street is that the chemical company’s corporate offices may also soon be leaving. Though a company spokeswoman denies a move is in the offing, she confirms an evaluation process is underway and has been since Albemarle acquired New Jersey-based Rockwood Holdings earlier this year for $6.2 billion.

“We will evaluate all of our sites and locations and decide the best strategic fit for our business, including our corporate headquarters,” says spokeswoman Ashley Mendoza. “But whatever decision is ultimately made, Albemarle has and will continue to have a significant presence in Baton Rouge.”

Economic development officials would rather we not talk about this. It’s much more fun to revel in the chirpy press releases that are issued when a company announces it is investing or expanding here. They are only too eager to crow when companies are coming. They’re far more circumspect when those companies are downsizing or packing up altogether.

Louisiana Economic Development, which spends our tax dollars by the tens of millions on corporate incentives and marketing firms that attempt to promote the state to a national audience, refuses to discuss either the Albemarle or Amedisys situation. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber also declines to talk.

But it’s time we talk about this, because for all the many positive economic development stories going on in the area—and there are many—it’s foolhardy to pretend that these big companies aren’t pulling their top brass out of the local market when that is exactly what they’re doing.

It’s also important to talk about why.

On the surface, one of the simplest explanations is the lack of air service. Baton Rouge has a relatively small airport and it isn’t a hub for any major airline, which means you can’t get a direct flight out of here. It’s a factor in where companies want to be, and it has been for some time.

Executives at The Shaw Group used to complain about it, though they had a corporate jet to get where they needed to go. Albemarle CEO Luke Kissam also spoke to the issue earlier this year, when he conceded the city’s limited air service poses a “challenge” for a global corporation based in Baton Rouge.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of talk makes airport officials quite defensive. They say the airport has good air service for a market this size and say they work hard at trying to get more flights from both new and existing carriers. They also point out that Baton Rouge is served by the major network airlines that control 80% of domestic flights.

That is all very true. It’s also very much besides the point, because this isn’t about the airport. The limited air service to and from the Capital Region is symptomatic of the problems that are keeping Fortune 500 companies from setting up shop here. It’s not the cause.

The bigger issue is the lack of talent. That hurts to hear, but it’s time we address it—just as some forward-thinking business leaders are attempting to address the skilled labor shortage—rather than stick our head in the sand and hope the secret doesn’t get out.

Kusserow discussed the problem frankly with The Advocate’s Ted Griggs, explaining that what makes New Orleans and Nashville more attractive than Baton Rouge is the talent pool in those larger, more diverse communities.

Of course, we know what we need to do to attract the kind of young, educated, professional “talent” of which Kusserow speaks. We’ve been grappling with those problems for a long time, and we know what the solutions are: improving K-12 education, demonstrating a commitment to higher education—and particularly to building up the flagship LSU campus—reducing crime, developing pedestrian-friendly communities with green space and bike paths, encouraging artistic and creative endeavors, welcoming diversity.

We’ve made great strides in some of those areas. In others, not so much, and you sometimes have to wonder if we really want to address those issues—and make the necessary hard choices—or just keep talking about them.

While we try to figure it out, Baton Rouge will lose the prestige that comes with being home base for a major, national or international publicly traded company. Even if good, mid-level jobs remain, it’s not the same as having the decision-makers based here. They have clout and bring credibility to the area, which in turn makes us look more attractive to other big companies looking to relocate their headquarters.

It’s troublesome, unless you don’t think about it.  After all, if we don’t talk about what’s going on, we can pretend it’s not happening.

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