Meaningful Economic Development. Can it be Done?

During my career I was fortunate to serve on the boards of civic organizations that were focused on job creation and growth. In 1997 I was President of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation and in 2005 I was Chairman of the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce. At the time St. Tammany, located north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain, was one of the fastest growing parishes/counties in the country.

Much of economic development is of course political. You have elected officials who want to implement legislation that spurs growth and you have public-private partnerships like the STEDF and the Chamber, that want to aid in that cause as well.

The challenge is that both volunteers and elected officials want to propose plans of action that provide tangible results in a short period of time. This validates their existence in that they can point to the specific plan or law and tout its effectiveness.

In my home state of Louisiana we have some tremendous home field advantages. We have great infrastructure with six interstates ( I-10, I-12, I-20, I-49,  I-55, and I-59), several airports, numerous seaports including the Port of New Orleans, and a fair amount of rail. We also have one of the largest natural gas plays in the world in the Haynesville Shale, timber, agriculture, the movie industry,and miltary operations with both a large air force and army base within our borders.

Our real estate is comparatively cheap, we have tremendous recreation including boating, fishing, and hunting. We have world class cuisine and music along with big time sporting events and teams. And the climate, excluding hurricanes, is better than most states. Yet our net population is shrinking.

In Louisiana the state budget has a tremendous amount of money that is restricted and immune to cuts. As such, in times of fiscal crisis the ability to look at the income and expense side of the state’s operations is compromised. Even in good times the ability to not access these restricted funds is problematic. So where does the brunt of cuts fall. The victims in this case become health care and education.

No incentive package, whether it is free land, lower taxes, or tax credits will consistently attract new business or maintain existing companies if their employee base is unhappy with their education and health care options. If you want young couples to move to your state and raise their families you need quality schools. If you want to attract retirees or hang onto to your existing citizenry you need top notch health care options. If you don’t have competent education you can’t train your work force. If the work force is not there you have to move them in. If the trained work force is unhappy with the school choices they won’t come. It is a vicious cycle.

There was a time when planting a tree whose shade you would not sit in was a moral obligation. Moral and ethical public servants felt compelled to put in place plans of action that would yield benefits down the line long after they were gone. The live in the moment stance taken by a vast majority of elected officials is detrimental to long term achievement. President Harry Truman once said “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

A sound and effective educational system also allows our citizens to stay relevant on the world stage. Make no mistake the world is flat. States and local economies are not only competing regionally and nationally now but globally as well. And health care options are paramount to maintaining that work force. If you undermine or diminish either of those industries you are poised for defeat.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Strong public and private partnerships have proved invaluable in shoring up troubled schools in inner cities and rural areas as well as beleagured hospitals and clinics in those same locales. Attacking this problem won’t yield dividends in one, three, five , or even ten years. And the original proponents may not get one shred of credit. But if this issue is not addressed soon and comprehensively our legacy to future generations will be one of massive debt, a lower standard of living, and a record of selfish behavior in both the public and private sectors that is shameful and inexcusable.

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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