Dean Barber

A Story of Redemption

In Places on September 29, 2013 at 8:07 am

NEW ORLEANS – Let the record show that I am noticing. I have actually been noticing for some time now. It would appear that this city is not just back, but it’s better.

Now I’m not just hearing this from economic developers who will sell you a pig in a poke if you let them. No, longtime residents tell me that things are looking up, that the city is changing. Previously I had known New Orleans as an interesting if not largely broken place headed in some very ugly directions. That is no longer the case.

That is not to say that serious deep-rooted problems do not remain. Crime and poverty remains a pox here. Establishing quality public education is still not a top priority for some. And entrepreneurship and diversity is still viewed with antipathy or even suspicion by some old money. But those attitudes are breaking down. People do die.

I am here for a “fam” tour, which I welcome, as it gives me an opportunity to learn about a place. Because of the time constraints of my consulting business, I do not nor cannot accept all such invitations. I will certainly not consider a fam tour in which the inviting community is not covering my travel expenses. I got one of those invitations this past week.

But if my schedule permits, I go to places where a) a corporate client may want to go and b) there is a heightened degree of business activity and c) a community needs help and will pay for my consulting services on how to better compete for private investment.

I arrived in New Orleans a day early so as to knock about on my own, and get a feel for the place.

An Old Haunt

I have been to this city a number of times over the course of many years – the first time as a young hitchhiking vagabond back in 1974. I know I must have worried  my parents half to death back then with my youthful antics. I have only vague memories now, but they include a place called Cooter Brown’s, which served a wonderful cheap breakfast.

As a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I would knee wobble with friends in the French Quarter into the wee hours only to discover that some of those pretty girls that we were buying drinks for weren’t who we thought they were. Enough on that. Jaegermeister is an evil concoction designed for personal destruction.

Years later, I now look at New Orleans through a much different lens, not so much as Partytown USA, a Gulf Coast version of Vegas, but a place where serious business investment can and does take place. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Greater New Orleans had the ninth fastest GDP growth in the nation in 2012.

Being a port city certainly doesn’t hurt. Occasionally, even magazine editors can get it right. My friend Jack Rogers with Business Facilities magazine did when he wrote this: “With its proximity to the center of the U.S. via a 14,500-mile inland waterway system, six Class One railroads and a nexus of interstate highways, New Orleans is the port of choice for the movement of everything from steel, rubber and manufactured goods to commodities like coffee.”

Back from the Abyss

New Orleans has been a port city ever since the Spanish and French waved flags here. The presence of a resurgent oil and gas industry also provides for a degree of wealth and stability. But something else is out there that that has changed the environment and even the outlook of the city.

I am not going to be so heartless as to say that Hurricane Katrina eight years ago was a good thing for “Nawlins.” Lives were lost. (About 1,800.) People’s personal finances were devastated and many forever lost their homes and left never to return. But I will suggest that Katrina, a near death experience for this city, has served as a rallying point for one of the greatest turnaround stories in American history.

Americans love comeback stories as it reaffirms hope and what can be. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 did not stop Chicago. It bounced back. So, too, did New York City when it faced an almost financial meltdown in 1975, but somehow avoided bankruptcy. The cocaine cowboys were shooting up Miami in the late 70s and early 80s, making it a literal war zone between rival drug gangs, but law enforcement eventually regained control.

These cities pulled themselves back from the abyss, which I believe can only happen when local government and the business community band together to fight for positive change. That public-private partnership is key. It certainly happened here.

Winning with Technology

Prior to Katrina’s landfall in 2005, the economy of New Orleans relied heavily on being a port city. Tourism and government were the other major sectors of an economy in decline and the business community was not taking the leadership role that it should have. But that has changed.

Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution identified New Orleans as having the best economy among 100 large metropolitan areas. And while I do not necessarily put a lot of stock in the thinking of muddled editors (I can speak from experience on this), it may be worth noting that the Wall Street Journal named New Orleans the No.1 most improved metro in the country. Bloomberg called it the No. 2 “boomtown” in America, and Forbes ranked it third in terms of winning technology jobs.

But as much as this comeback story is inspiring and deserves further scrutiny (which is why I am here), it is not an absolute given that economic growth is sustainable for the long term. So says my host, Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. I thought it quite revealing and candid when he wrote this:

“Our gains are real, but they are fragile. And as tens of billions of Katrina funding wind down, the rest of the country is reviving from the great recession. The ‘new’ Greater New Orleans is about to enter the ‘new’ normal.

“So for all the challenges of the past few years, the coming may hold even more. Competing on a level playing field now will be our opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that the Louisiana Renaissance is real, and that the post-Katrina resurgence was not a swan song, but the prelude to a story of redemption.”

Heck, Hecht can write. How can you not want to stay abreast of a story of redemption?

Issues that inhibited corporate investment, like corruption, vulnerability to flooding, and a problematic permitting and regulatory climate, are being addressed largely at the insistence of the business community. (Detroit, are you listening?)

Now there is no question that federal aid, as alluded to by Hecht, played a huge role. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said last month that it provided $19.6 billion to Louisiana to rebuild and protect property against future storms in the eight years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana.

But so too does political leadership. I think it safe to say that Louisiana and New Orleans has had some pretty nefarious politicians at the forefront in its history. That might be good for the anointed few but it’s usually not good for the many. In that regard, business can be a progressive force in essentially demanding clean government, much less a pro-business environment. I think that is happening here.

Following in the Mold

The evolution toward a new New Orleans was apparent this past week when Chentech said it would establish a new software development center here. A subsidiary of ChenMed, ChenTech will create 50 new jobs with an average salary of $83,000 year, plus benefits. Economic developers say the same number of new indirect jobs will be created.

I never would have thought of New Orleans for this type of business until recently. But keep in mind that Forbes ranked New Orleans only behind Silicon Valley and San Francisco in the battle for IT jobs. The same magazine ranked the city first in “America’s Biggest Brain Magnets” for attracting people under 25 with college degrees. And that has been a part of the story as the city has repopulated itself after Katrina.

The fact is that when educated young people want to come to your city, that’s a good thing. You have a future based on greater expectations rather than protecting a musty patriarchal status quo. In short, your children and grandchildren are risk takers looking for opportunities to build their own lives and New Orleans is increasingly viewed as an attractive option.

Of course, providing targeted tax relief, greasing the skids so to speak, can always help. Louisiana has a digital interactive media and software development incentive, an offshoot of prior efforts to attract film industry production to the state. The incentive provides a refundable tax credit of 35 percent for most software payroll expenditures for state residents and a 25 percent refundable tax credit for production expenditures related to hardware, software and lease space.

Game On

Paris-based Gameloft, a publisher of mobile games, credits the incentive as a reason for picking New Orleans for its second U.S. game development studio. The company is on track to fulfill its goal of 100 employees by 2016.

One of the biggest coups in reshaping the “new” New Orleans happened in 2010, when after a 17-month search, GE decided the Crescent City would get its first IT Center of Excellence for GE Capital. It has meant 300 jobs and six-figure salaries.

A forward-thinking GE Capital wanted to work with academic institutions to ensure a future talent pipeline. To ensure that would happen, the state committed $5 million to fund expanded computer-science programs at the University of New Orleans and other universities. A substantial workforce training and recruitment package also was offered in addition to a 6 percent annual rebate against new payroll for the first 10 years of operation. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

Such inducements get my attention and say something about a changing environment. I notice and so, too, is the world noticing a changing New Orleans. No doubt about it. It’s happening.

That does not mean that I will not continue to have questions and concerns. I will always have questions and concerns — about every place, everywhere, all the time. It’s what I do.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas.

If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

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  1. Interesting piece Dean. I hadn’t heard about this. Nice to know IT can be cultivated in other areas and New Orleans is a city with great character for sure.

  2. Katrina was a horrible event for New Orleans and many surrounding areas in the loss of lives, homes, and businesses. There is more to be done but Dean is right that when industry and politicians work together for common, practical goals, good things can and often do happen. Many folks evacuated during Katrina and its aftermath to other cities like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and others and have not come back. That gave the remaining population more opportunity to capture the “new” jobs and participate with the comeback. I heard the other day that there are more restaurants in New Orleans than prior to Katrina. That is great news for the locals and tourists. America loves a good comeback story. Thanks for sharing Dean.

  3. Reblogged this on BioNOLA Business Blog and commented:
    For more information on BioDistrict New Orleans plans to add 34,000 new jobs in the healthcare\bioscience, go to
    Tweeter: @bioDistrictNOLA
    Blop: BioNola Business Blog

  4. Hi Dean,

    I was in New Orleans for a family wedding this weekend. I am a son of the Crescent City, lived in New Orleans during grade school and am a huge New Orleans Saints fan. Unfortunately, I do not share in your enthusiasm about New Orleans. Michael Hecht is a hugely talented economic developer and writer. Alot of these awards that New Orleans are receiving are a direct result of his group’s phenomenal sales and marketing work. Is it enough to mask the truth? I don’t believe so in the long run. New Orleans problems are three centuries in the making, and they stem from an institutionalized class and racially biased system which built a pervasive corruption that persists to this day, in spite of heroic efforts to dismantle it.

    New Orleans is destined to become an even greater tourist destination, like Las Vegas. As we all know, however, tourism does not produce the kinds of jobs that build a well-educated, prosperous region.

    All, however, is not negative for the state of Louisiana. The Baton Rouge area is now almost as big as Greater New Orleans in terms of population. I believe it will eventually lead New Orleans in terms of business dynamism. 45 minutes to the west of BR, Lafayette or Greater Acadiana is doing incredibly well and will continue to grow.

    New Orleans is putting up an incredible fight, but its challenges are probably too daunting, I’m afraid. Hopefully, the city is a wakeup call to other U.S. urban planners at the federal level who face the ever growing challenge of limited job growth and a poorly educated citizenry.

    Go Saints!

  5. Dean,
    It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday and show you our Port. As someone who has lived in New Orleans all my life, I can tell you that the change that is taking place here is real, if somewhat fragile. Thanks for the thoughtful blog and next time you’re in town, call me up and we can pick up an alligator sausage po-boy at Cooter Brown’s, which is still around.

    Chris Bonura
    Port of New Orleans

  6. An interesting analysis. As for political leadership. Gov. Jindal’s reflexive political posturing (refusing Medicade expansion and Health Care reform) are going to exacerbate povery and crime. Of course, the GOP can always hope that as the rents go up, the poor people will go somewhere else. I lived in DC in the early 90 and the massive displacement of the working poor was good for the district, not so good for the bordering counties.

    The main point to consider is why young people are attracted to New Orleans: culture. As we saw in San Francisco over the last several decades one by product of the tech boom was teh displacement of whaty are typically called “culture bearers” here in New Orleans, artists, musicians, true culture bearers like Mardi Gras Indians and the typically working class members of Second Line parade groups. The influx of the young and ambitious looking for a fun place to spend their early working years is displacing these people further from the cultural centers, as happened the San Francisco. Arabi (an adjoining suburb) is rapidly becoming out Oakland.

    It is not a dynamic with a cure, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out. The young and culturally ambitious will always find a spot to squeeze in as close to the core of the city as possible. It’s the old-line culture bearers I worry about more.They may end up like many white (and black) flight church goers, who kept coming back on Sundays to the old neighborhood they could no longer afford. Displacing these people from their neighborhoods (and these organizations are closely tied to their neighborhoods) could be a danger to their future.

    Like many old-line Orleanians the getting and spending of money is an ugly necessity. What matters to us is cultural capital, not monetary capital. There is already an ugly backlash against “hipsters” (the employees of high tech industry for example). For myself, I’m just waiting for the family that owns my ramshackle shotgun house that allows me to live just over the rent-insurance redline from the fashionable Faubourg St. John to figure out what the property is worth, Probably when the next generation takes over. Then it will be off to Jingletown, I mean, Arabi for me.

    Mark Folse
    Odd Words & Odd Bits
    of Life in New Orleans.

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