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Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp, center, gives a presentation at The Advocate's 2020 Economic Outlook Summit, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 at the Manship Theatre.

When the president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber rolled out its economic forecasts in January, there were a number of upside numbers.

But Adam Knapp drew attention to one that is not as rosy, 831,000. That is the latest population figure for the nine-parish metropolitan area.

It’s also the same figure from 2017, and a little less than 2016.

“Frozen,” was a word that applies since 2015, Knapp told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

There were many other better indicators for the Baton Rouge metro, of course. Economic output has increased. The chamber said it secured 27 economic development projects in 2019, the most in the organization’s history. The projects, both expansions of local businesses and attractions of new enterprises, will lead to the creation of 1,200 permanent direct jobs, and represent $3.1 billion in capital investment across the region.

Still, Knapp said, the population issue remains, as growth is increasingly dependent on educated “human capital.”

While the local population is estimated to have grown by about 3% over the past decade, Columbia, South Carolina, saw its population go up close to 8%. “Attracting and retaining talent is the greatest challenge to economic development,” Knapp said. Peer cities are benefiting more, obviously, from a decade of an expanding national economy.

Some of the lag in population growth is attributable to events and economic factors. The 2016 floods hit the metropolitan area hard. While there are a large number of industrial expansions underway, there has been a bit of a lag in hiring as some major projects have not begun construction.

Job growth has nevertheless been up in the area in the last year, about 1.9% in nonfarm positions. That’s good but not as good as many places elsewhere in the country.

Still, Knapp said, “the Baton Rouge area is one of the most diverse economies of any region in the country.” He also noted that enrollment in colleges, four-year and two-year, is above 50,000 in the region. That’s a good number.

The chamber has many objectives, of course, beyond population growth. It’s deeply involved in public education and is a forceful advocate for more spending on infrastructure, particularly the need for better roads and a new Mississippi River bridge. Traffic is an obvious impediment for business development.

All that said, Knapp continued to call attention to the metro population numbers: “The highly visible and tangible impediment that traffic is to economic development may be less important than the invisible and intangible issue of human capital.”

Our Views: Baton Rouge will grow, but businesses challenged by disrupting technology