Global trade and logistics offer a tremendous growth opportunity for greater New Orleans.
Coming out of the economic tumult of COVID-19, one of the most significant economic trends is the rising dominance of logistics; the race is on to see who can deliver products fastest and most efficiently. Here in southeast Louisiana, we have a unique combination of strategic geographic placement, all six Class-1 rail lines, excellent highway access, one of the fastest-growing airports in America, and, of course, the mighty Mississippi — connecting us to 31 states and two provinces. Collectively, these assets make us a preeminent logistics hub, continuing a trade tradition presaged in 1682 when Robert La Salle wrote to King Louis XIV and said, “A port or two would make us masters of the whole of this continent.”
Today, Louisiana trade creates 525,000 jobs — one in five in the state. This is driven largely by our super-regional collection of ports, including the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, Port of South Louisiana, Port of New Orleans, St. Bernard Port and Port of Plaquemines. Our ports are responsible for $33 billion in annual personal earnings, more than $2.4 billion in state taxes, and $1.8 billion in local taxes. Exports from Louisiana total over $63 billion, and support over 3,500 businesses. Thanks in part to this global profile, in 2019 we delighted 725,000 international visitors who left over $800 million on our shores.
Now is the time for us to double down on trade, and there are some encouraging signs. The nation’s leading medical supplier, Medline, announced a 400-job facility on the north shore. Amazon Air has launched from New Orleans International Airport. With the support of the Louisiana delegation and Gov. John Bel Edwards, Congress authorized dredging of the Mississippi to 50 feet — a critical step, as it will allow us to accommodate “post-new-Panamax” vessels.
Moreover, the Port of New Orleans’ recent cooperative endeavor agreement with St. Bernard Port for a new 1,100-acre, $1.5 billion container facility launches a major regional and generational opportunity. The current container facility is nearing capacity, and the Mississippi Bridge lacks sufficient air draft for the larger, taller vessels of the future. The new facility will eliminate space constraints, is downriver from the bridge, has existing rail and road access, and is located within the $14 billion federal flood protection system.
The “Louisiana International Terminal at Violet,” as it will be called, will give us growth capacity for 50 years, in a clean and sustainable facility. Simply put, it will announce to the world that Louisiana will be a formidable player in the global trade of the future.
Going forward, it is essential for the state and region to coalesce around a single vision, strategy, and investment plan for the lower Mississippi, from Baton Rouge through the crow’s foot of Plaquemines. If we act together, the “Mississippi River Complex” can reassert its former dominance in North American trade, especially for the middle third of the country. Unfortunately, for too long our trade stakeholders have acted in isolation, and sometimes in competition — which has served only to confuse our message, and dilute our impact.
This super-regional strategy for the Mississippi River Complex must center on building a major new lower Mississippi container port, launching additional logistics and distribution hubs, enhancing our value-added manufacturing and project cargo capabilities at Avondale and related facilities, and fortifying our global air connectivity. Through this coordination of international business assets, we can win.
And what does winning mean? It means that from Baton Rouge to the lower Mississippi, ports and industries will be able to leverage their collective position as the single greatest transportation artery for bulk, breakbulk, and container volume in the hemisphere. This will catalyze warehousing, distribution, value-added manufacturing, and concomitant export-import growth, leading to a surge in blue-collar and white-collar jobs — which pay nearly 50% above the regional average wage.
Louisiana and greater New Orleans can go “back to the future” with international trade. We can leverage our history and natural competitive strengths while capitalizing on emerging post-COVID-19 trends. With a common vision and a unified plan, we can help our economy recover, serve the world, and create jobs and wealth for our people.
Michael Hecht is president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc. Greg Rusovich is chairman of the Louisiana Board of International Commerce.