In at least one way, Bobby Jindal and Kip Holden had an awful lot in common in 2014: the calluses on their ribbon-cutting fingers.
That has been a hallmark of the year just past. In Louisiana, and Baton Rouge in particular, the state has seen a significant number of new announcements, or projects beginning, that will add thousands of new jobs, particularly in the petrochemical sector.
While some of the biggest projects in the state — and among the biggest in U.S. history — are in the Lake Charles area, Baton Rouge has seen some of the enormous economic potential in plentiful and cheap natural gas and a built-in infrastructure of pipelines and transportation facilities, including along the Mississippi River.
Holden and Jindal have been making the most of it, and it’s only fair that they do. Mayors and governors get blamed for bad things that happen on their watch, whether they’re responsible for them or not. They should get to enjoy the good news, and there has been a lot of it.
How much credit should they get? In many cases, certainly in the petrochemical sector, Louisiana’s built-in advantages and the natural gas bonanza mean that the politicos’ role is not enormously important compared to the underlying economic factors. But as the mayor recently told the Metro Council, diversifying the local economy with projects like the IBM expansion here takes work. The IBM building is rising on the riverfront downtown as a visible symbol of the growth in Baton Rouge.
Holden had to speak up because of an ill-advised amendment to the 2015 city-parish budget. Council members wanted a pay raise for city-parish employees, and as a gesture Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle offered an amendment to move $450,000 from the budget item for economic development. It was only a gesture; the guardian of the figures, Marsha Hanlon of the finance office, told members that the money wasn’t half enough for a pay raise for the Department of Public Works employees. As it turns out, with a budget supplement later this year, there will be a raise for city-parish workers.
Still, it’s disturbing that the economic development fund was picked out as a target, as if it’s a slush fund that can be tapped in good times for crowd-pleasing purposes, because the industrial projects are rolling in.
City-parish government contracts with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber for economic promotion efforts. It’s a long-standing contract that the council members should monitor, as any important contract, but it’s a smart way to approach economic development. It avoids duplication of effort with the largely privately funded Chamber activities in seeking new businesses.
This is something that Baton Rouge is doing right: a public-private partnership that avoids a proliferation of agencies doing the same things.
Criticize Jindal or Holden as you will — the fact is that both are presentable when it comes to soliciting new businesses. Jindal is adept at the McKinsey and Co. patter that corporate tycoons are used to hearing. We’re used to Holden, and maybe 10 years after his first election some are tired of him, but he is the African-American leader of a predominantly white parish, and that — aside from his own legendary gift of gab — makes a positive statement that is noticed.
Holden was right to point out the IBM project, one of many, because its building is a physical manifestation of the diversification of Baton Rouge’s economy beyond from our traditional petrochemical base. That effort must continue, even when the mayor’s schedule, and the governor’s, are already chockablock with ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.