LAFAYETTE — Touting the strength it would pack, Jason El Koubi and the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce he directs are rolling forward with a nine-parish Acadiana regional chamber that would be headquartered in Lafayette.
The initiative, now called The Campaign for One Acadiana, has executive backing from major to small companies within the region: Lafayette, Acadia, Jefferson Davis, Vermilion, Iberia, Evangeline, St. Mary, St. Martin and St. Landry parishes.
El Koubi said last week that the “flip the switch” date for the regional entity is Jan. 1.
The as-yet unnamed agency also has the backing of most — but so far not all — of the myriad chamber and economic development officials in the parishes. Some officials are concerned about their organizations’ roles in the agency.
The regional organization is being modeled after multiparish agencies in Lake Charles and New Orleans, and also in Baton Rouge, where in the mid-2000s, El Koubi cut his professional teeth working at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber for Louisiana’s current economic chief, Stephen Moret.
El Koubi remained at BRAC with Moret until 2008, when Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed Moret as head of Louisiana Economic Development and El Koubi joined LED.
El Koubi was hired to lead the Lafayette chamber in September 2013.
El Koubi last week conceded Lafayette has enjoyed economic prosperity, fueled mostly by the oil and gas industry, despite not having a regional organization. El Koubi said Lafayette and the other parishes may by relying too heavily on oil and gas, though.
“What we’re doing now is seizing an opportunity at a time when we have a position of strength,” he said. “Things are going well. What we don’t want to do is … wait for a major economic downturn to look at each other and say, ‘We’ve got to get our act together.’ ”
The regional chamber would exercise more clout and be more effective, El Koubi said, when it comes to:
- Securing funds to build Interstate 49 South to New Orleans
- Training for workers in the oil and gas industry and in construction crafts needed to build and maintain billions of dollars in announced south Louisiana projects
- Strengthening primary and secondary education
- Luring industry with multiple ports and thousands of square miles of available land
- Competing for future mega projects that in the past have bypassed south-central Louisiana in favor of Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and New Orleans — all of which have regional chambers.
El Koubi said he spent his first three months as Lafayette chamber director listening to business leaders. He said he heard again and again that the chamber needed to be refocused, maybe even reborn.
“I also heard that we need to pull this region together because we know we’re connected economically and socially,” he said.
Julie Dronet-Simon, chairman of the Lafayette chamber and director of operations at Cox Acadiana, said last week that chamber officials have wanted to create a regional entity since 2006.
She said companies in the nine-parish area are led by executives who take a regional, or larger, view. Their employees may work in one parish and live in another, their products flow out of state or out of country, or south to the Gulf of Mexico, and banking finance knows no geographic boundaries.
El Koubi said he and others behind the initiative have met with parish chambers, economic development groups and business leaders to flesh out and work on problems, and to educate others on the initiative.
On Wednesday, there will be an educational meeting for the public starting at 11 a.m. at the Cajundome & Convention Center in Lafayette.
Not everyone is totally on board.
“The great concern we have is that distinction between the Lafayette chamber effort and the regional chamber effort. How is that going to evolve?” Ben Riviera, president of the Vermilion Chamber of Commerce, said last week.
Riviera also sits on the board of the Vermilion Parish Economic Development District.
“We haven’t looked at a clear plan. We don’t know the exact intentions,” he said. “Nobody’s looked at anything on paper at this point.”
Lynn LeJeune, president and chief executive officer of the St. Landry Parish Chamber of Commerce, said she’s still gathering information to relay to her chamber members.
“It’s an interesting concept; it’s a good concept,” LeJeune said about the regional approach.
“Is it in the best interest of St. Landry Parish? My members have a lot of questions, like I do,” she said. “We all want to hear more about it.”
Others who were skeptical have been won over.
“We did have some questions about governance,” said Janet Faulk-Gonzales, president of the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce. She said the answers El Koubi gave on how the regional chamber would be run satisfied Iberia Parish chamber members.
El Koubi and the Lafayette chamber are conducting a fund drive for The Campaign for One Acadiana. The goal is to secure $15 million from members of the regional chamber who sign up for annual commitments over five years.
The system is tiered, with higher-paying members enjoying more perks and clout. For instance, businesses that commit to $100,000 a year or more will sit on the CEO Advisory Council.
Four other levels are for businesses that sign up for yearly payments of $2,500, the Ambassador’s Circle, to $99,999 a year, which is the Chairman’s Circle.