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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- The apartment building '525 Lafayette,' left, adjoining the IBM headquarters, right. Residential options for those seeking to live in downtown Baton Rouge have improved greatly in the past 10 years.

Travis Spradling

Big picture, Baton Rouge has a lot going for it.

Bigger picture, in a worldwide competition for talented people and growth industries, maybe not so much, or at least not in way that businesses around the country or the world might recognize today.

Those were some of the insights from Dennis Cuneo, who has helped to make site selection decisions for Toyota and other major manufacturers building plants across North America.

He talked to the economic development transition team set up by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome from the perspective of a friendly critic, as he is a graduate of Loyola Law School and maintains a condo in New Orleans' Warehouse District; Cuneo has steered some big deals to Louisiana and is a fan of the state's efforts to diversify its economy.

Baton Rouge has inherent advantages, such as interstate and railroad and river access. "There are not that many places that have all of these things together," Cuneo said. Challenges for bringing in new business, though, include diversifying from the oil and gas base and becoming more attractive to what professor Richard Florida dubbed the creative class.

Competition is stiff. Downtown Baton Rouge has come a long way, but he said it has some way to go before it can compete with leaders in the country, from Portland to Austin to the Research Triangle. Cuneo has a son in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "That town is vibrant," he said, with a downtown that attracts young people.

The proportion of college graduates in Baton Rouge is above average, costs of living and housing are relatively low, and "that is something you can build on," he said, but the perception that Louisiana is subject to extreme weather events is inevitable, given the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Louisiana is down in some classifications of business-friendly policies, probably a result of state budget troubles, but has a first-class program for staffing new businesses. The ratings drop "is something you have to be aware of," Cuneo said.

While the capital region is heavy with petrochemical industries, those companies represent thousands of technology-proficient workers who know industrial processes. In an age of disruption of traditional industries, Baton Rouge's "middle-skill workers," who can make an industrial workplace hum, are a valuable commodity to attract different kinds of manufacturing facilities. (His suggestion: battery plants, for the new world of electric vehicles.)

The location decisions for company headquarters is different from that of industrial and manufacturing plants, but both depend on "site elimination," more than selection, Cuneo said. "You have a chance," he said, but a robust and nonpolitical economic development team, regional in scope, is a fundamental requirement to be in the game and survive a Darwinian process of elimination by national and international companies.

Above all, though, is human capital. "It is more important today than ever," Cuneo said.

"I thought what happened with IBM in Baton Rouge was a big deal," he said of the tech firm's new offices downtown.

Building on that, though, requires a commitment to meeting the quality-of-life standard set by cities growing around the country. It can happen, Cuneo said, noting that while in college in New Orleans he would never have ventured to the Warehouse District, but now it is an attractive place to live and work in the city.

A Pennsylvania native, he noted that Pittsburgh was once a Rust Belt backwater but is now a tech mecca, with companies attracted — or locally grown — by the research into technology and robotics at institutions like Carnegie-Mellon University.

His advice is well-taken, particularly in light of human capital.

Strikingly, in last year's campaign some criticism was heard of investment in downtown, although state government has probably been a much bigger investor than the city-parish government itself. For years, LSU deans have talked about the difficulty of recruiting young professors to the city. We have few bike paths, but much sprawl and traffic congestion.

From bike paths to cultural attractions to downtown living, in a worldwide competition for talent, we would unilaterally disarm if we slack off in making Baton Rouge more attractive to the young minds valuable to today's economy.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.