Leaders say Baton Rouge-New Orleans super region needed to compete with Houston _lowres

Advocate Staff Photo by Travis Spradling -- Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber

Baton Rouge and New Orleans need to team up to form a super region to help south Louisiana better compete with Houston for jobs, the heads of two regional economic development organizations said Wednesday.

“Houston is our biggest competitor. They took the energy industry from us, they took incalculable human capital from us going back to the 1960s,” Michael Hecht, president and chief executive officer of GNO Inc. told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge. “Why on Earth are we competing separately against an area that is that geographically large and has all that diversity, with the universities and the medical centers?”

Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said Houston has almost 6.5 million residents spread across a metro area that’s nearly 10,000 square miles. In comparison, the super region of Baton Rouge-New Orleans-Houma-Thibodaux has 2.2 million residents and is 8,000 square miles.

“We have to be able to work together to see ourselves compete at a scale against an area that is so much of our competition,” he said.

The efforts to develop the super region started in earnest in 2009, with BRAC and GNO Inc. officials agreeing to meet every other month with the gatherings alternating between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Over the years, the South Louisiana Economic Council, which promotes economic development in the Houma-Thibodaux region, has joined the effort.

Knapp noted that 54 percent of Louisiana’s population lives in the super region, 59 percent of state jobs and legislators are in the super region and 60 percent of all state sales taxes are collected in the area. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for this southeast region to drive the agenda for the rest of the state,” Knapp said.

The regions have worked together, passing out joint marketing materials at a chemical industry trade show in Germany and organizing super-regional trips to Tampa-Orlando, Florida, and Tucson-Phoenix, Arizona, to learn from their successes. Details are almost set for the next trip, set for fall 2016 to Panama.

There are some natural connections between south Louisiana and the Central American nation, Hecht said. For one, there are direct flights between New Orleans and Panama City.

The other is that in the northern part of the country is the city of Colon, a free-trade zone that Hecht said is “totally, totally radically different” than Panama City.

One of the biggest things that Baton Rouge and New Orleans are working on is a passenger rail uniting the two cities. Bringing existing rail line up to where it could support a 79 mph train running between the two cities is estimated to cost $262 million. Operation of the line would cost $6 million a year.

Hecht said the train is going to happen in the next three to five years because the four major gubernatorial candidates have said they support the idea, there’s political support for the train in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans region and the local business community is united behind the idea.

“The key thing on the Department of Transportation federal level is that if the governor doesn’t want a train, you’re not going to get it,” Knapp said.

John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and a supporter of the rail service, said there’s “a lot of momentum” toward establishing the passenger line. “Steps need to be taken to address the issues of cost and identify funding sources,” he said. “But there are a lot of different methods to get there.”

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.