The 61 members of One Acadiana who spent three days in Charleston last week absorbed a wealth of information from South Carolina officials who have spent 20 years fine-tuning an approach to regional economic development that’s proven highly successful.
Members of Lafayette-based One Acadiana, which grew out of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, learned that success didn’t come immediately or easily for the Tri-County area in the southeast part of South Carolina. Charleston officials recounted a lot of obstacles they had to overcome as they tried to rebound from the closure of the Charleston Naval Base shipyard in 1996.
Those hurdles included the entrenched political turfs across Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties; a public education system that wasn’t preparing its students for the workforce; and ineffective economic development groups that spoke with disparate voices.
They also told One Acadiana members that, like the rest of the country, they continue to wrestle with racial inequities and that they still strive for a color blind society.
Acknowledging there is still more to do on the race front, Charleston officials arranged a tour of the Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. In June, a young white man shot nine black church members to death. Dylann Storm Roof, who entered the church and was invited to pray with church members, later said he hoped to ignite a race war.
Jason El Koubi, One Acadiana president and CEO, toured Emanuel last week and like others in the Louisiana group, knelt down to pray alongside church members.
“It was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life,” El Koubi said.
El Koubi, who was hired in 2013 to run the Lafayette chamber, said his talks with regional businesses and organizations led to the decision to create One Acadiana.
The group was formed to adopt a regional approach in pursuing economic development objectives, such as lobbying for better highways, including Interstate 49 South and for the elections of business-oriented politicians who would strive for better public education and for free-market legislation.
After a fund drive that raised $15 million, One Acadiana was born in early 2015.
The agency also is trying to lure industry to the south Louisiana region. One Acadiana is in the process of selecting and certifying industrial sites for its nine-parish region: Acadia, Lafayette, Jefferson Davis, Evangeline, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Landry, Vermilion and Iberia. Each of the parishes has attributes: ports in Iberia, St. Mary and Vermilion; large airports in New Iberia and Lafayette; decent roadways; the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; and a technical college system that now focuses on math- and science-based training for the 21st century workforce.
One Acadiana chose Charleston for its first “Leadership Exchange” because of that city’s success.
Charleston was dealt a blow in 1993, the year the city found out its Navy base would be closed within three years, and that thousands of good-paying jobs would be lost. The region’s leaders quickly went to work trying to lure companies to southeast South Carolina.
Despite the quickly apparent obstacles, they realized they had plenty to work with: a port with big-ship access to the Atlantic Ocean and international markets, an enviable road system that crisscrossed the state, and a tourist-bound attraction — Charleston — that has a historical American gravitas that rivals Boston and Philadelphia.
They also have 10-term Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
Riley is credited with greatly improving race relations and working hard to spread success across the Tri-County area and beyond. Riley did it without building a fiefdom or claiming credit for himself.
“Joe Riley could have easily made it all about lower Charleston. He didn’t,” said Elliott Summey, a Charleston City Council member who spoke to One Acadiana on a tour of the Charleston harbor. Riley will retire when his current term ends in December.
Charleston and its three-county region have racked up a series of successes on the economic development front since the naval shipyard closed, reeling in assembly plants for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, the Mercedez-Benz Sprinter vans and a line of Volvo vehicles, and a Google data center.
In the process they’ve raised student test scores and trained more of them for the workforce, increased health care access, raised property values, increased business startups and provided greater access to venture capital.
The harbor tour was packed among three days of tightly scheduled meetings with Charleston business and political officials. The meetings covered how the Tri-County area has implemented a “Cradle to Career” emphasis on job training through apprenticeship agreements with businesses and two-year college degrees that stress math and science; the importance of a regional approach in chasing federal and state funds; and the need to include everyone in a rising economy.
“This is also an inclusive community,” said Lafayette City-Parish CAO Dee Stanley, who attended the Charleston trip. Stanley is running to succeed Joey Durel for Lafayette City-Parish president. His opponent, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, signed up for the Charleston trip but ended up not going. The election is Saturday.
One Acadiana had one last meeting before departing for the Charleston airport for the trip home last week.
“We can do what they have done,” said Lenny Lemoine, president and CEO of Lafayette-based The Lemoine Co. “We’re probably starting from higher ground than where they started when they went down this road. … (But) we’ve got to be able to think on a whole new level.”