The Baton Rouge Area Chamber's top project priority in 2017 is a new Mississippi River bridge — at $1 billion the most costly solution to traffic congestion but also the one that provides the greatest relief, Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp said Monday.
"This is the year that we have to make sure we make investments in traffic and transportation," Knapp said during the monthly meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club. "We've been building toward this and frankly it's been decades overdue …. And this is a business imperative."
Without investments to relieve traffic congestion, the quality of life for residents and the likelihood that businesses will continue coming to the area will diminish, Knapp said. This is especially true for the large-scale manufacturing projects that have helped fuel the area's growth in the past few years.
Massive investments by the chemical and petrochemical industry enabled the Baton Rouge metro area to add roughly 10,000 jobs in 2016, a growth rate of 2.7 percent, Knapp said.
"We actually are in the midst of one of the most rapid economic expansions probably in the history of the Baton Rouge region," Knapp said. "We don't necessarily observe that when there are doldrums in the state economy. But in many ways, I was talking to one of the state economists this week, the Baton Rouge area and the Lake Charles metro area are really bolstering the state's economy."
Without the Baton Rouge and Lake Charles areas, the state's jobs numbers would be much, much worse, he said.
The latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show Louisiana lost 4,800 jobs for the year.
Traffic congestion and business investments were among a number of topics Knapp touched on in highlighting BRAC's 2016 accomplishments and goals for 2017.
BRAC's major goals for 2017 also include:
• Secure funding for an image campaign outside the area on what Baton Rouge offers. A 2016 survey of decision makers and working professionals found that Baton Rouge isn't perceived positively or negatively, Knapp said. Baton Rouge doesn't have much of an identity, which has a direct effect when employers are trying to recruit or BRAC is trying to recruit employers.
• Push for the creation of a flood recovery initiative for small business. The state has allocated a little more than $50 million to this initiative, but that's not enough to help the 6,000 businesses damaged by flooding.
The economic development highlights included:
• Nine projects announced that secured 924 jobs and $46 million in payroll and involved $362 million in investments.
• 2.7 percent growth in 2016 and a pretty conservative forecast of 1.5 percent growth in 2017. Each year, the area's growth has met or exceeded the BRAC forecast, Knapp said.
• High rankings among metro areas, such as No. 1 among mid-sized cities for manufacturing growth. BRAC is using rankings such as these to market the area as a top place for investment.
• Partnering with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry to launch the Louisiana Small Business Rebirth Fund within two days after the August flood. So far, the fund has raised about $800,000, which has been deployed or is about to be, in no-strings-attached grants to small businesses most affected by flooding. The fund recently received a $75,000 grant focused on minority-owned businesses affected by the flood.