With the business pages filled with headlines about expansions in petrochemical manufacturing, it is easy to miss the quieter revolution underway in Baton Rouge’s metropolitan economy.
That is the knowledge economy, sometimes creeping into existence and sometimes hobbled by bad decisions by political leaders thinking only in the short term.
The headlines for industrial expansions are deserved: Not many regions of the country are poised to so benefit from the low price of natural gas and the political climate that welcomes industrial expansion. Most places would throw a parade for a billion-dollar industrial investment, but those are amazingly common lately in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, the hearts of industrial corridors along the Mississippi and Calcasieu rivers.
The high-tech jobs in Louisiana’s petrochemical plants involve anything but ordinary labor. At least some training at community colleges or a four-year degree are part of the requirements for success in the highly automated facilities we so take for granted.
Still, when most people think of the knowledge economy, it is not those workers but the software and digital entertainment creators who are expanding this year and next in Baton Rouge. The headline gap between the plants and the techies was somewhat reduced this year by the IBM office and associated housing development in the middle of downtown Baton Rouge on the river.
The governor, mayor and Adam Knapp, of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, lauded the eventual 800 tech jobs serving major IBM clients in the U.S. and around the world. Like the plants before it, IBM also benefits from generous state subsidies, corporate welfare that is now expected by large companies.
IBM’s prominence as an iconic name drew headlines but also makes the deal more profitable for our region, subsidies or not: The company puts a higher profile on knowledge economy growth in the area.
But what shall we make of this step forward? There are good signs, but problems created by the same political leaders who are happy to cut the ribbons for new businesses but shirk paying the bills.
A BRAC report on innovation and entrepreneurship outlined many of the pluses that, at a tiny fraction of the subsidies for industrial facilities, contribute to the diversification of our economic base.
“Knowledge-based economies run on the talent of the local workforce: the technical and research abilities to create innovative new products and solutions, and the business expertise to effectively commercialize them,” BRAC said.
The report reviewed the progress from growth in engineering at LSU — the fifth fastest-growing of its kind in the country — and the long-term success of the LSU Agriculture Center in commercializing its discoveries. LSU’s business incubator is one of the models of its kind and is probably better known around the country than in its hometown. A new game-testing company is moving into the Louisiana Technology Park, part of the growing electronic game sector.
LSU’s leadership is putting more money into LIFT Funds that give grants to academics seeking to translate ideas into potential products.
If these are positives, tragic cutbacks to higher education by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have obviously damaged both LSU and Southern University, a failure that haunts the ambitions of the capital city as a tech mecca.
That ought to be on the minds of leaders at all levels, in industries old and new, in the political battles of 2015. The gutless lawmakers we have now think nothing of cutting LSU while lavishing tax breaks on their favored industries. We need men and women willing to raise the revenues to pay the bills, and not rob from the future for today’s political gain.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.