Baton Rouge area business leaders and academic experts gathered to discuss some key topics that might come in the year ahead during The Advocate's 2020 Economic Outlook Summit.
Adam Knapp, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, shared results from the annual business confidence survey and economic snapshot and shared that two top concerns for businesses in the region are traffic congestion and availability to nonstop flights from the local airport.
Beyond those concerns, potentially tepid but stable job growth in the coming year will make the higher education business much more valuable as the region loses population to competitor markets.
"There has been significant progress to try and address the challenges...the pressure that's being placed on our leaders by the business community and by residents to address traffic congestion, you're seeing that we're going to extraordinary lengths to try and do that. The Governor announced for the first time in the history of Louisiana we're going to borrow against future federal funds for the next 12 years to widen Interstate 10. The heart of the bottleneck in Baton Rouge is I-10 and it's been a challenge," Knapp said about the traffic situation.
For example, there are plans for a new $1 billion bridge to cross the Mississippi River underway.
Philip May, CEO of Entergy Louisiana, shared the utility provider's plans to invest in renewable energy such as a new 500 acre solar farm in West Baton Rouge Parish which could produce up to 50 megawatts.
In the coming months, Entergy will release a request for proposals for yet another solar farm where it can purchase electricity for the region.
"The cost of solar, the improvements that we've seen and how they're billed and so forth, has greatly improved the economics of solar in the past several years particularly for large scale, what we call industry scale, projects. So these are projects like the size of the one on the West Bank allowing you to drive down (costs). You have to look at how you can get down the remaining costs (beyond the cost of the solar panels themselves). So they are the most economic choice for our customers," May said.
In the broader energy industry, such as oil and gas and the budding liquefied natural gas sector, experts predict that roughly 30% of the projects announced along the U.S. Gulf Coast won't be built. But that's lower than the average said David Dismukes, executive director and president, LSU Center for Energy Studies.
"The rule of thumb is about 50% (won't get built), to me that's a pretty good outlook," Dismukes said.
For Genevieve Silverman, CEO of NexusLA, who also oversees the Louisiana Technology Park, the next year will be focused on cultivating more technology industry talent for employers, particularly startup companies. About a decade ago, the chief concern for technology startups was access to capital then talent, now that has largely been flipped.
“When you ask that question today, talent is the number one answer. We feel that a lot of our tech companies in our region are having their growth stifled because they are not able to access to availability of skilled talent that they need to grow. That’s one reason why we launched the registered IT apprenticeship program.”
The way local universities educate the future workforce is changing, especially as those entities are leveraging less state tax dollars in its coffers.
For Southern University in particular, the institution has been restructuring its curriculum to meet student demands for tangible workforce skills in the higher education fields to meet rapidly changing employer qualifications.
"We're going to see about 30% of higher educational institutions close if they don't make some serious changes in terms of being all things to all people. At Southern, for example, one of the things that we've tried to do is bring some alignment for our core academic offerings to workforce demands," said Domoine Rutledge, chairman, Southern University Board of Supervisors. "It's not necessarily about getting a degree but marketable skills that they can monetize."