We all want a stronger economy—more opportunities for our children and grandchildren. Pretty much everyone who runs for office talks about building the economy. But what does that mean for Central Louisiana? How does the work of economic development get done? Who does it? Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA) was formed four years ago to serve as the region’s state-designated economic development organization (EDO). This article uses CLEDA’s activities as a window into the complicated, multi-dimensional world of regional economic development.
CLEDA uses the brand “Central Louisiana: We Make Good Stuff” to underscore the critical role of manufacturing to both our past and our future. So, what do we mean by “economic development”? Professionals have debated for decades about the definition of “economic development”. The International Economic Development Council says, “Economic development can be described as a process that influences growth and restructuring of an economy to enhance the economic well being of a community.”
For CLEDA, economic development is the purposeful set of actions that a region takes to improve economic conditions for those who live in the region. One of CLEDA’s most important indicators for knowing how these actions are working is median household income. Although we can measure economic activity and progress in thousands of different ways, few tell the story of our challenge as succinctly. Stated in its simplest and most brutal form, Louisiana’s 2013 median household income was 13.6% below the nation’s. Central Louisiana’s median household income was 26.7% below the nation’s and 15.1% below Louisiana’s. CLEDA’s job is to take purposeful actions to improve economic conditions in Central Louisiana. CLEDA does this work with a network of partners throughout the region and beyond. CLEDA’s mission is to help people prosper in vibrant, thriving communities. CLEDA’s work falls into three categories: major employers, knowledge platforms, and regional innovation.
CLEDA’s work with major employers is designed to maximize the area’s business expansion and retention efforts. These efforts are paying off with the announcements of major economic development investments, which result in more jobs in the area.
Just last month, American Specialty Alloys announced plans to build its first production facility manufacturing rolled aluminum alloys which can be used by the automotive and aerospace industries. The $2.4 billion complex on the former International Paper site in Pineville is expected to bring nearly 1,500 jobs to the area. Earlier in February, Tudor Inc. began construction at the Alexandria Regional Port on improvements to the port’s infrastructure that will accommodate Cool Planet, a biofuels and biocarbon company.
Other recent major employer announcements include expansions at Crest Industries, Eclectic Products and Hayes Manufacturing. Major new location announcements include the world’s largest chip processing facility in Olla, UPS Midstream Operations in Jena, Gulf Coast Spinning in Bunkie and PaperWorks in Alexandria. CLEDA Vice President for Major Employers Rick Ranson said, “This is a really exciting time to be doing economic development in Central Louisiana. Conditions for additional growth are the most favorable I’ve ever seen.”
Central Louisiana Manufacturing Managers Council
The United States is enjoying a resurgence in manufacturing, and Central Louisiana is particularly well-positioned as a great location for smart, efficient, profitable manufacturers. Manufacturing jobs are economic drivers, jobs that export goods and services from the region while importing dollars from outside the region.
To support these efforts, CLEDA helped form the Central Louisiana Manufacturing Managers Council, whose goal is to enhance and further develop the competitive capacity of the manufacturing sector of the Central Region of Louisiana. It helps manufacturers grow and create positive operating environments. The Council also contributes to the continuous improvement of workforce development systems.
No region is capable of sustained economic growth beyond the capacity of its people to perform. The education and skills of our workforce represent our biggest potential and our biggest constraint.
CLEDA–along with The Orchard Foundation, The Rapides Foundation and other partners–supports the Cenla Work Ready Network, a program that links education and workforce development efforts and aligns them with regional economic needs. The network offers high school students and under- or unemployed adults the chance to earn a nationally recognized certificate that demonstrates their work-ready skills.
“The network is a crucially important component of workforce development. Companies will not look at investing in a region unless their workforce needs are met. The existence of the Cenla Work Ready Network gives us a substantial advantage,” CLEDA President Jim Clinton said. CLEDA has recently received a grant from the Delta Regional Authority to help every parish in the region become Work Ready Certified.
Another important component is creating a link between the business and higher education communities. The Central Louisiana Business-Higher Education Alliance, consisting of CLEDA, Louisiana State University of Alexandria, Northwestern State University and the Central Louisiana Technical Community College, is designed to create and sustain economic development opportunities in the region. “Our goal is to create a lasting framework for building institutional capacity and excellence so that we can continuously improve our educational outcomes in the region,” said Wayne Denley, CLEDA’s Vice President of Knowledge Platforms. “Through a regular exchange of ideas, assessing the needs of employers, and focusing curricula to meet those needs, we will have a positive impact on the quality of our workforce.”
CLEDA is also dedicated to building the region’s entrepreneurial capacity. There are more than 28 million small businesses in the United States, but that they average less than two employees per business. The key to creating jobs and wealth is to focus on small businesses with significant growth potential.
CLEDA manages the Business Acceleration System, an entrepreneurial development program funded by The Rapides Foundation. BAS speeds the development of Central Louisiana entrepreneurs by helping them acquire and apply the knowledge needed to grow their companies. The BAS toolbox includes coaching, expert technical assistance, classroom learning, and web-based instruction.
Central Louisiana businesses and entrepreneurs are “makers”. We make art, music, software, food, soap, plywood, tank cars, and even robots. CLEDA recently created the “Maker Mornings” initiative to bring our makers together and unlock their creative potential. “With Maker Mornings, we want to encourage more people to make good stuff and build a creative maker community in Central Louisiana,” Clinton said. Maker Morning events are held quarterly.
CLEDA is actively engaged in the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative, whose goal is to strengthen the region’s local foods economy while also increasing access to fresh foods for local residents. For a detailed view of regional food economy progress, see the February 2015 issue of Cenla Focus.
Partnerships and Networks
When Cenla Advantage Partnership (CAP) and CLEDA merged in May 2011, a great deal of attention was given to the term “Alliance” as part of the new organization’s name. By definition, very little of CLEDA’s work is carried out without partners and allies. Each project, each challenge, involves the assembly of a group of allies committed to seeing the project through.
A great benefit of this approach is that each individual partnership can be as temporary or permanent as needed. For example, a team assembled to pursue a specific recruitment will often be dismantled upon the successful or unsuccessful completion of the recruitment effort. By contrast, the development of a structure like the Manufacturing Managers Council will be as permanent as it is successful in delivering ongoing value to its stakeholders.
Key Partners and Their Roles
The Rapides Foundation: With its mission of improving the health status of Central Louisiana, The Rapides Foundation recognizes the correlation between a vibrant economy and the health of a community’s population. For that reason, the Foundation funds many of the projects that CLEDA administers, and the two collaborate frequently on endeavors that are designed to improve economic outcomes in Central Louisiana. The Rapides Foundation also provides matching funding for contributions made by other investors in CLEDA.
The Orchard Foundation: This local education fund established by The Rapides Foundation also partners with CLEDA on projects intended to increase the health of the region by improving its education and business opportunities. The Orchard Foundation created and launched the Cenla Work Ready Network with stunning success, particularly within the region’s high schools.
England Airpark: Among economic developers nationally and internationally, England Airpark is known as Central Louisiana’s most prominent success and asset. It has received broad acclaim as a model for base conversion. Recently named the #2 Site in the South for Large Manufacturing by Southern Development magazine, England’s growing set of resources make it the hottest development spot in Louisiana and a buzz-worthy site nationally. England has the capacity to develop and pursue projects on its own as well as being an invaluable partner for most economic development projects in Rapides Parish.
Ports of Alexandria, Natchitoches and Avoyelles: the presence of the navigable Red River is a critically important factor in Central Louisiana’s competitiveness. All three of these ports are active economic development partners.
Red River Waterway Commission: The Commission promotes tonnage on the Red River and helps to fund economic development and recreational assets. The Commission was an invaluable partner in the recently announced American Specialty Alloys project, paving the way for new dock resources at the ASA site.
GAEDA: the Greater Alexandria Economic Development Authority is a reliable, agile partner for a variety of economic development projects. GAEDA played a particularly vital role in the successful recruitment of PaperWorks to Alexandria. GAEDA’s flexibility makes it an ideal partner in Alexandria-based development.
Parish and Municipal Governments: The roles of Parishes and Municipalities vary significantly according to their own size, resources and capabilities as well as specific project needs. They are absolutely crucial with regard to infrastructure. In smaller municipalities, the mayor may be the only economic development presence in town. In larger municipalities, such as Alexandria, the role of the city as an operator of utility resources, developer of special projects like SPARC, and all-around flexibility (the City’s role in the development of a new campus for Central Louisiana Technical Community College) all highlight the City’s important role. On a smaller-town level, the mayors of Jena, Winnfield, Bunkie and Pineville have all taken vital lead roles in specific recruitments and expansions in their environs.
Chambers of Commerce and local economic development entities: The Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce is among CLEDA’s earliest and most frequent collaborators. A significant part of CLEDA was part of the Chamber prior to its merger in 2011. The Chamber’s public affairs leadership frees CLEDA to focus on the mechanics of economic development. The Chambers in Natchitoches and Leesville also are regular partners in economic development, along with partners like the LaSalle Economic Development District, the Winn Economic Development Committee and the Concordia Economic and Industrial Development District.
Private and Public Utilities: Most industrial recruitment requires one or more utility partners. This may be through a local water district or, as in the case of Alexandria, directly through the mayor’s office and the city’s public utility operators. On the private side, this can be a natural gas supplier or, more often an electrical utility. Cleco, with its long history of regional development, is the largest and most active. Recent recruitments like Gulf Coast Spinning in Bunkie and American Specialty Alloys in Rapides would not have been possible without Cleco’s leadership and commitment.
Louisiana Economic Development: Most industrial recruitment leads come to local partners from Louisiana Economic Development. In each case, an active partnership is created with LED and a variety of local partners. Having a strong state development agency is a vital factor in regional success. One of the major success stories of recent years is the creation and rise of Louisiana FastStart within LED. This is the top-ranked operation in the nation for providing customized recruitment and training capacity to new and expanding industry.
Other State Agencies: Successful economic development often requires our region’s ability to navigate among a variety of relevant state agencies. Among these are the Department of Environmental Quality, the Louisiana Workforce Commission, the Department of Transportation and Development, and the Division of Administration.
Federal Agencies: Regional developers must engage with a range of federal agencies, prominent among them the Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Fort Polk and Fort Polk Progress: As the largest employer in the Central Louisiana region, Fort Polk’s continued vitality is of paramount importance to the region. Leadership on this important front is provided by Fort Polk Progress, England Airpark, and the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce.
A list of regional partners: CLEDA’s website contains a directory of important resource partners at http://www.centrallouisiana.org/economic-directory.php
It’s Not One Thing – It’s Everything
CLEDA President Jim Clinton laughed about some of his interactions with media. “During my years at Southern Growth Policies Board, the question I was most often asked was ‘What would you do if you could do only one thing to bring about economic success?’
“Although I’ve enjoyed good relationships with the press, my answer to that question always seem to frustrate the interviewers,” Clinton continued. “I always answered, ‘It’s not one thing–it’s everything.
“That’s why we have so many partners making so many different kinds of contributions. For example, you can’t really build a sustainable economy without an upwardly mobile, competitive workforce. The amount you grow is limited by the amount you know. You must brand your region in an innovative way and live up to the brand. In our case, that brand is Central Louisiana: We Make Good Stuff. Similarly, you must build a robust infrastructure, maintain it, and continue to add to it. You must have regulatory and legal systems that are strong, fair, efficient and predictable. You must stamp out corruption wherever you find it. Failing at any of these things will undermine a region’s capacity to grow.
“No economic development agency in the United States has ever transformed a region. Any success that CLEDA has or will enjoy is a direct product of our ability to work with a strong network of partners,” Clinton concluded.
A Cautionary Note
All speculation about local and regional growth must be leavened by the reality that things can change. A 9/11-style attack, a major environmental crisis, etc.—anything that threatens the nation’s economy—threatens Central Louisiana’s economy.
There is a clear and present danger, however; one that is bearing down on us and could severely limit our ability to be competitive. Over the past several years, the rolling state budget crisis has resulted in massive damage to the state’s higher education resources. Additional cuts that could be made in the 2015 Legislative Session could bring growth to a halt. As noted above, a region cannot compete without a connected, relevant, constantly-learning workforce.
The region needs increased resources at Northwestern State University, Central Louisiana Technical Community College and Louisiana State University of Alexandria–not reductions. Our future prosperity demands them.