In the three decades leading up to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ job growth greatly lagged the rest of the South — not to mention the rest of the country — a pattern that was likely to continue if not for the massive upheaval that followed the deadly storm, the head of a regional economic development alliance said Wednesday.
“We were the reason why everybody else was above average. We set the curve,” Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., told a crowd of a few dozen people at Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business during a discussion about the local business community’s recovery from the 2005 disaster.
From 1969 to 2004, Hecht said, the city’s job growth was near 43 percent — about half the national average and a fraction of the 200 percent spike that Houston saw over the same stretch.
“We can never forget: There is this tendency to romanticize the past, and in many ways,” he added, “the past of New Orleans was romantic, if you liked a kind of stagnant economy that was backward-looking.”
Since then, the local business landscape has become more diverse, he said, including the emergence of a new technology sector geared toward entrepreneurship and digital media. The burgeoning industry, though still a fraction of the size of longtime stalwarts like energy and tourism, has been driven in large part by generous tax breaks, he said, as well as smart marketing techniques that have latched onto a growing national interest in moving to the Crescent City. Those together helped breathe new life into the local economy.
Hecht called the metro area “the fastest-growing technology cluster in America,” based on percentages and a per-job basis.
The region also has established itself nationally as being a go-to resource for information and experts focused on land loss and disaster recovery.
“We have turned from being the victims of disaster to being the masters of disaster,” he said. “We have the brand now — like it or not — of being the wet end of the pier, in terms of dealing with sea level rise, because we not only have sea-level rise but we have soil subsidence.”
He also defended the use of some of Louisiana’s growing network of tax incentive programs as offering New Orleans a leg up while it works to compete on a larger stage.
“The thing that people miss about incentives is that we need them right now,” he said. “San Francisco doesn’t. We’re coming from being competitive with Mississippi, but we want to be competitive with the world, so you need that inducement upfront to make up for both real and perceived deficiency.”
Meanwhile, Hecht also offered some optimism for the future of a lingering piece of the past: the Avondale Shipyard on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish, which was once Louisiana’s largest private employer.
Hecht believes the site, which was recently put up for sale, will likely find new life as a general-purpose industrial park, similar to what happened in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s after the country’s oldest naval shipyard there closed.
“It’s going to be the same thing,” he said. “There’s never going to be 25,000 people there building boats again … but we could have 5,000 people doing a variety of light manufacturing activities.”
Hecht said the $546.5 million expansion project underway at Louis Armstrong International Airport will boost tourism figures — the city’s bread and butter — as well as its image to recurring and first-time visitors. New Orleans is on a short list to secure a direct flight to London, he said, which would provide a new source of convention traffic. “It’ll change everything,” he said.
Also during the discussion, Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, discussed the past decade’s gains in cargo shipping and cruise traffic along the lower Mississippi.
LaGrange counted as a win the recent announcement that Viking River Cruises, a worldwide provider of high-end river cruises, will make New Orleans its home port for its first North American itineraries.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.