Maybe it doesn’t sound as upbeat as chamber-of-commerce types would like, but “flat is good” might be one of the important take-aways from a variety of insightful perspectives on the greater Baton Rouge economy in the coming year.
The quip about a flat market regarded commercial real estate, from Jonathan Walker, of Maestri-Murrell, one of the panelists at a business summit at the Manship Theatre sponsored by The Advocate.
He was speaking about the dramatic disruptions in markets caused by online retail, which might cause a decline in demand for space. But fortunately retail space is still in demand, though it must be repurposed to gyms, restaurants or other uses that are “internet-proof.”
The principle applies across a lot of businesses and industries represented by the panel. The disruptions in traditional business models is across the spectrum.
In a time of such far-reaching change, flat can be pretty good, as it represents a continuation of a growth model that has served the regional economy fairly well over the past decade.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber reports annually on forecasts of job growth, and the region continues to grow, with every one of nine parishes expecting to see some growth in the coming year.
At the same time, CEO Adam Knapp said, for the last three years growth has run under the forecast — a change from the previous years, when the forecasts of outside experts were too conservative.
Major capital investments continue in the region, particularly petrochemical manufacturing like a $500 million expansion of the ExxonMobil complex. National trade policies, though, generate “a lot of uncertainty,” in the words of David Dismukes, director of the LSU Center for Energy Studies.
Knapp said that top concerns for businesses in the region are traffic congestion and availability of nonstop flights from the local airport. But growth in college enrollments — “The capital region is a college town” — represent not only robust local institutions but the kind of talent pool that can fuel growth.
A cautionary statistic came from Genevieve Silverman, CEO of NexusLa, who also oversees the Louisiana Technology Park on Florida Boulevard. Talent is the chief concern for tech startups, rather than access to capital, as it was a decade ago.
And Louisiana is not filling the talent pipeline. She said that there are 15 times as many advertised openings in tech jobs as there is total enrollment in relevant fields in Louisiana universities.
A growing region, a strong mix of local and national, if not international, businesses, and new investments from the state and from voters in arterial roads in East Baton Rouge Parish — these represent some of the positive trends identified by the panel.
But the talent pipeline clearly ought to be on the minds of both local leaders and the Legislature at the State Capitol.