Lanny Keller: In face of oil collapse, Louisiana's path is clear: We must use our brains _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- Idle liftboats are docked last month at the Port of Iberia in New Iberia. Plunging oil prices have taken a toll on drilling activity and oil service companies.

For a decade or more, when analysts looked for bright spots in Louisiana’s economic future, there were two cities that shined in a state that lagged behind the South’s rising economic players in the Atlantic Coast states.

For many years, Lafayette and Baton Rouge were indeed the stars in the Delta South along the Mississippi River.

Dramatically, last year, the two cities’ paths diverged.

What could be more different than the outlook for 2016 in Lafayette and Baton Rouge?

The former is suffering from the severe impact of a dramatic downturn in oil prices. As a national center for oilfield services and exploration companies, Lafayette is among the cities most hurt in Louisiana by the oil collapse.

Baton Rouge, by contrast, has posted two of the best years for job growth in probably 20 years or more, according to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

The enviable year-over-year growth of 2 percent or more in jobs has boosted the capital region’s economy, BRAC President Adam Knapp told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge’s momentum has been sustained by the low price of natural gas, with continuing giant investments in the bedrock of the local economy, petrochemical manufacturing.

The growing diversification of the area economy in software and other services is also a major new factor in growing jobs over the 400,000 mark in the nine parishes. Lafayette’s economy also continues to diversify, but it’s unreasonable to expect such a giant hit to the energy industry to be offset easily.

Along the Interstate 10 corridor, Lake Charles is another region of the state growing rapidly because — like Baton Rouge — it consumes oil and natural gas for the Calcasieu River petrochemical complex.

Where do we go from here? For all the I-10 cities, with such widely differing components of their energy-related economies, the Holy Grail of diversification remains a key goal for planners, led by Knapp in Baton Rouge and Jason El-Koubi of One Acadiana. Lafayette has its examples of diversification, such as gaming software companies and Bell Helicopter’s assembly plant.

Each community has assets that the business organizations are seeking to grow, but Knapp noted Monday that the impact of oil’s collapse is not limited to the oil patch communities.

If the state budget is further hammered by falling energy prices, on top of bad policy decisions over the past eight years, the institutions that will drive new growth are endangered. That’s particularly LSU but also Southern University in Baton Rouge and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette across the Atchafalaya Basin. Community colleges in both regions also have suffered from budget cuts as The Advocate’s “Cutting Classes” series outlines in this week’s newspapers.

Growing a knowledge-based economy depends on brains; it’s that simple.

If the business institutions of today, through their lobbyists at the State Capitol, block tax reforms that will pay for tomorrow’s brainpower, it’s difficult to see even how Baton Rouge can look to the future with the confidence that the past few years of growth have inspired.

John St. Julien: While perhaps best known as a passionate advocate for public education during the frenzied debates about school policy over the past few years, the Lafayette activist who died recently at 63 is also remembered for his role in pushing a publicly owned fiber-optic system in the city. He will be greatly missed.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.