Central Louisiana is poised for continued economic growth and progress, according to city development leaders. From a nearly $4 million river front improvement project in historic Natchitoches to major construction projects underway at Fort Polk in Vernon Parish to planned industrial park developments in Rapides and Avoyelles parishes, Cenla’s economic future looks bright.
Jim Clinton, president and chief executive officer of the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA), believes a constant in economic development is the reality that growth from within is almost always more important than recruiting industry from elsewhere. “Central Louisiana’s ability to experience a stable economy in recent years is an exemplary case of this axiom. Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance focuses its resources on helping Central Louisiana’s businesses achieve prosperity while adding new businesses through entrepreneurship and business recruitment,” Clinton notes.
Economic growth has been modest in the region for the past 18 to 24 months. The downturn in oil markets that affected so much of South Louisiana finally made its way to the Cenla region in the form of both layoffs at Union Tank Car, Inc. and postponed startups at Sundrop Fuels and Cool Planet. The closing of General Electric’s plant also contributed to the trend. “However, growth in other parts of the region’s manufacturing base kept overall economic performance stable,” Clinton adds.
Crest Industries has continued to grow its operations. Procter & Gamble continues as a key component of Cenla’s economy with a series of new investments. AFCO has also experienced significant growth as has UPS Midstream in Jena. RoyOMartin is a major economic contributor, both through its manufacturing operations and its effect on the timber industry. These and other manufacturers make outsized contributions to the economy because of the way they interact with and support other businesses in the region, notes Clinton.
The allied health sector led by Rapides Regional Medical Center, Christus Saint Frances Cabrini Hospital and others also continues to perform very well, according to Clinton. “This sector employs thousands of professionals in high-paying jobs. Its impact on higher education is also important as it hires graduates from regional schools including Louisiana State University at Alexandria, Northwestern State University, Louisiana College and Central Louisiana Community Technical College,” he adds.
The quiet giant of economic opportunity in Central Louisiana is Fort Polk, Clinton says. With overall expenditures approaching $2 billion annually and payroll of almost $1 billion annually, Fort Polk is the largest, non-state-government employer in Louisiana. Fort Polk’s activities affect the entire region. England Air Park, for example, is a major resource for Fort Polk’s activities. “Fort Polk’s relatively level funding is another reason for the stability and strength of the regional economy,” Clinton adds.
Central Louisiana is emerging as a hub for start-up and entrepreneurial activity. More than 1,200 new jobs have been created in recent years by the entrepreneurial companies receiving coaching services from CLEDA’s Business Acceleration System. These companies are spread throughout the region and range from a greenhouse manufacturer to small farmers to software developers to retailers.
The Cenla region is home to a growing number of software and technology companies. “These companies have rapid growth potential and will push us to continue to modernize our educational offerings,” notes Clinton.
CLEDA has conducted coding camps for junior high and high school students as well as adults. “We hope to see one or more of our higher education institutions move aggressively into this space to support growing, innovative companies like Kinetix, Turner Teleco, Enhancesoft, Real Vision, Ingalls Information Security and others,” Clinton says.
Agriculture is historically an important part of Central Louisiana’s economy, but technology and productivity have dramatically reduced the number of jobs associated with farming. The small farm movement is beginning to establish a stronghold in the region, however. CLEDA’s Fresh Central initiative supports farmers markets, farm-to-table, farm-to-restaurant and farm-to-school activities. “Inglewood Farms’ organic farm, active marketing and leadership acts as a showplace and leader for this important work. A thriving local farm economy selling fresh fruits and vegetables within the region can have a huge impact on both our economy and our quality of life,” Clinton adds.
The travel and tourism market in the region, centered in Natchitoches and Rapides parishes, also has played a significant role in keeping the economy healthy. New hotels throughout Central Louisiana, newly refurbished and reopened hotels in downtown Alexandria and the newly modernized, re-imagined Rapides Coliseum are all reasons to believe that this sector will grow in the near term. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony open to the public, Jacques Roy, mayor of Alexandria, remarked how the renovated coliseum will ignite the area’s recreational opportunities. Roughly $23 million was spent to renovate the Rapides Coliseum over a two-year period.
Cenla city planners and developers are looking toward the future. “We should see good, and potentially very good, economic growth in the region between now and 2020. Strong military investments, a returning petroleum economy and other factors bode well for Central Louisiana. We should see new jobs at Union Tank Car by the end of 2017. TopChem will soon begin construction on its ammonia plant in Pollock. Construction will begin very soon on the new Central Louisiana Community Technical College Campus in downtown Alexandria. We have more certified sites available for industrial location and expansion than we have had in years,” Clinton notes.
Crucially, the level of cooperation and collaboration among economic development partners is at an all-time high. Parishes and municipal governments are joined by the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce, the smaller chambers in the region, England Air Park, Fort Polk Progress, GAEDA, the Rapides Foundation and many others in the pursuit of economic prosperity for all of Central Louisiana.
Long term, Cenla’s largest challenge will be developing a workforce that has the knowledge, skills and mindset to fulfill the region’s very real potential, Clinton notes. To that end, CLEDA’s Knowledge Platforms Group, along with their partners from the Rapides Foundation, the Orchard Foundation, and a host of school, private and governmental partners work every day to drive up educational achievement in the region. The aggregate knowledge and skills of a region’s population sets an absolute upper limit on economic performance, Clinton says. No region can achieve a level of prosperity higher than the educational achievements of its population.
Natchitoches Parish, as the southern outlier for Northwest Louisiana, or the northern outlier for Central Louisiana—depending on your perspective—has tremendous opportunity for growth, according to Tony Davis, the president of both the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce and the Natchitoches Community Alliance Foundation, Inc. “Harnessing this opportunity has proven a challenge over the years for a variety of reasons, but that has changed,” Davis adds.
The Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce has worked diligently with the Parish of Natchitoches Government, the City of Natchitoches, the Natchitoches Parish Port, Northwestern State University and other local stakeholders for years to try to align economic development efforts locally, Davis says. In late 2014, the chamber made the initial investment into what is now known as the Natchitoches Community Alliance Foundation, Inc., or NCA, for short. The NCA is a 501(c)3 non-profit under the leadership of Davis. The executive committee of the chamber board also serves as the leadership of the NCA Board, thus allowing two separate leadership boards with an aligned strategy and clear lines of communication.
Since the formal creation of the NCA, Mike Wolff has served as vice president of economic development. He and Davis have designed service agreements with the City of Natchitoches, NSU, and Natchitoches Parish to meet their respective needs in the development arena. Additionally, the NCA pursues appropriate grants to fund programs and seeks investor support. The NCA has identified and begun marketing two existing buildings for investment, worked with the City of Natchitoches to help plan infrastructure and growth patterns and served as liaison on two regional economic development boards. Wolff serves on the North Louisiana Economic Partnership Board and Davis serves on the Central Louisiana Economic Development Association Board.
In addition to site development and planning, the NCA has also collaborated with local and regional development companies resulting in the planned placement of a new restaurant, and assisting with the development of a “request for proposal” document for the re-development of a large multi-use tract. The NCA launched a new website, www.NCA-la.com, to provide information for those looking to invest in and around Natchitoches. The NCA has also been very involved in workforce training, having developed and managed the THEO program for timber harvesting, introducing the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to Natchitoches Parish and currently working to introduce an advanced manufacturing technologist program locally.
NSU, the Natchitoches Technical College and the Natchitoches Community Alliance Foundation have teamed up with Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance and area manufacturers including Alliance Compressors, Boise Cascade and RoyOMartin, to offer the advanced manufacturing technician (AMT) program. The AMT program is a two year, five semester, work-based learning curriculum, Wolff says.
Students are selected by the participating manufacturers and enroll in this program to attend class for 8 hours, two days a week and work at their participating manufacturing facility three days each week. At the conclusion of this program, students earn an associate of science degree from NSU in engineering technology with additional technical courses taught through the Natchitoches Technical College. “This program starts in the fall, and it is a program that has the potential to positively impact our economic development,” remarks Wolff.
While some universities in the state did not have a marked increase in enrollment, NSU, for the fall 2016 school year, was the fastest growing university in Louisiana, based on student enrollment. “NSU also was the only university in Louisiana to honor the commitment to their enrolled students by fully funding the TOPS scholarship awards after the Louisiana Legislature cut funding for the spring 2017 semesters to the TOPS scholarship program,” Wolff notes.
Natchitoches has some major projects underway that will add to the quality of life, Wolff says. The Cane River Waterway Commission and the City of Natchitoches are working together on a nearly $4 million project to facelift the downtown river front area in Natchitoches. “This project kicked off mid-January and is scheduled to be completed by mid-November,” Wolff says. Project work includes handicap-accessible walkways from Front Street to the lower river bank, doubling the size of the riverfront stage, amphitheater-style seating imbedded in the sloped riverbank in front of the stage, brick walkway along the edge of the water, a garden area and restroom facilities on the south end of the river front.
The citizens of Natchitoches redirected a part of an existing tax to support the development of an $11 million sports complex. The City of Natchitoches has acquired about 100 acres of land adjacent on the west side of the NSU golf course to develop the sports complex. Planning is currently underway with work on the complex expected to start in 2017.
Activity is moving forward for a mixed-use development at the former Archer Daniels Midland cotton seed oil mill on Mill Street, located east of the NSU campus. Last August, the Natchitoches City Council approved to lease property to Cane River Brewery, a start-up microbrewery as an anchor business for this development.
Chateau St. Denis opened in November of 2016. This downtown hotel has 87 rooms and is located across the street from the Natchitoches Events Center and provides a solid anchor hotel to attract additional convention business, Wolff adds. The City of Natchitoches was able to certify their 48-acre industrial development site, located in the Natchitoches Business Park near Alliance Compressors. This certification allows for increased marketing for potential industrial development opportunities. In addition, the NCA is in current communication with eight manufacturing projects, nine retail/restaurant projects and two distribution/service projects.
Both Wolff and Davis agree—the future of Natchitoches is bright. “The NCA continues to identify new synergies to harness the great potential of Natchitoches Parish and the strengths of local partners. With this new energy and momentum, Natchitoches is excited about what the future holds for progress, development and quality of life for local citizens,” Davis adds.
Leesville city officials are optimistic about the economic prospects for Vernon Parish in 2017. Patti Larney, city administrator, says Leesville has a new prospect for the new industrial park. If the tenant becomes a reality, it would mean between 100 to 150 new jobs to the area. She said the city is still in hopes that Academy Sports will locate in the city too. A Woodlands Nursing facility is under construction in Leesville, and there are major construction projects underway at Fort Polk. The new South Fort Fire Station on the base is under construction. And planned are $80 million sewer plants at both North and South Fort Polk, as well as a $50 million Joint Operations Center, which is expected to be completed in 2021.
Marksville city officials in Avoyelles Parish say their local economy remains steady with several new businesses opening and with the concerts, recreational activities and fine dining opportunities at the Paragon Casino Resort. And while Bunkie, also in Avoyelles Parish, has experienced a few economic setbacks, city officials there remain positive about the town’s economic future.
Clara Leigh Soileau, president of the Bunkie Chamber of Commerce board of directors, says the town has a lot to offer economically. In small communities throughout Cenla, small business owners and entrepreneurs are the local economic champions. “We feel motivated. We have had several new small businesses open including a T-shirt shop, a gift shop and a meat market and deli. Also the Gator Grounds RV Resort and Water Park have been a big economic boost for our community and for the Cenla area,” Soileau says.
Gator Grounds, located on Highway 115 between Hessmer and Bunkie, is a 140-acre RV resort with a nine-hole golf course and multiple water slides. Recently, an indoor water park, complete with two pools, a spa and splash pad play area were added, along with a zip-line challenge obstacle course. In addition, the resort offers a stocked fishing pond, outdoor movie theater and playground. A lazy river is expected to open by this summer.
A project which promises to bring in about 130 new jobs to Bunkie is the Acadiana Center for Youth, a 61,000-square-foot facility for juveniles. However, at this time, the center “is in limbo” due to the state’s current budget crisis, according to Beth Touchet-Morgan, spokesperson for the Office of Juvenile Justice. “We have to see what happens with the state budget. But we should know by the end of June,” Touchet-Morgan says.
The $20.1 million Acadiana Center for Youth, which is nearly completed, will be comprised of nine buildings on a more than 20-acre site. These will include an administrative building, a fully staffed medical, dental and mental health suite, a school and a gymnasium. The facility will also include three housing building with two dormitories each as well as a cafeteria, warehouse, maintenance area and a mechanical building. The complex will serve a maximum of 72 youth offenders in need of secure care.
Acadiana Youth Center is designed using the Louisiana Model for Secure Care, which is a therapeutic treatment method modeled after the Missouri Model of youth treatment. The Missouri Model takes a therapy-like approach that creates family-like small groups for the youth, programs that are close to home and the least-restrictive environments possible, while maintaining a secure environment. The model focuses on creating long-lasting change and preparing inmates for a positive life upon release, officials say.
Bunkie city leaders remain hopeful about acquiring tenants for their newly developed industrial park on 149 acres on Highway 115. “Louisiana, as a whole, staying stable has been good for us. We are seeking businesses to come to Bunkie and stay. We want everyone to know we are open for business,” Soileau adds.
Overall, the prevailing attitude of the Cenla parish city economic planners and officials is very positive. As city leaders navigate challenges and budget shortfalls, Cenla communities are coming together to create, develop and plan to continue moving forward in 2017!