Louisiana has its own version of a golden triangle, with the economies of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette all looking up, even if the price of oil has been a significant hit in the latter.
The reported loss of 1,000 jobs in the “mining and logging” sector — where the government tallies oil and gas production jobs — understates the impact in Acadiana of last year’s fall in oil prices from the $100-per-barrel stratosphere. The loss is felt in many households as hours are cut back and insurance benefits curtailed or eliminated entirely.
If drilling and oilfield services can still make good money at $60 a barrel, the prospects look pretty good for Lafayette, which is diversifying its economy, but the real good news is in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The capital region has more than 400,000 nonfarm jobs for the first time, and if that is second to the larger Crescent City metropolitan area, it is Baton Rouge and Lafayette that have been the focus of state growth for the past few decades.
As experts on the South have noted for years, the decades-old decline of the Crescent City has been an anchor on the state’s overall prospects. Instead of an Atlanta, Birmingham or Charlotte — cities that have helped drive growth in their states — Louisiana has been an outlier in the Deep South, losing ground with its queen city instead of seeing the largest metro area drive growth.
If New Orleans merely arrests a 60-year decline and stabilizes its economic fortunes, the state as a whole looks much better going forward. For that, good choices and good leaders are needed; few dispute that Mayor Mitch Landrieu is the pivotal figure in the city in recent years, but civic leadership is broader than any one mayor.
As the state and the nation look back on the years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the latter slammed southwestern Louisiana in 2005 — one of the lessons that now seems obvious is that the economic ties of Baton Rouge and New Orleans are a vital dynamic for both cities.
Stephen Moret, then-head of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, pointed out that interrelationship in the wake of Katrina. His successor, Adam Knapp, worked on the bigger issues at the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and so came to BRAC with an understanding of those regional dynamics as well as his native southwestern Louisiana. Now, with the chamber of commerce organizations in all three cities working together under solid leadership, the regional relationship among the three cities should flourish.
Where could things go wrong? New Orleans itself is only a part of the metropolitan area, with St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes as major segments of the economy and no longer just bedroom communities. Yet it is the urban center that symbolizes the whole, and with another catastrophe like 2006, with the re-election of the hapless crook Ray Nagin over Landrieu, things could go wrong in 2018.
In Lafayette, two major candidates are announced for this fall’s election to succeed the successful Joey Durel’s administration; candidates are already lining up in Baton Rouge for the 2016 vote to replace Kip Holden after his three terms.
The incumbents’ squabbles with their councils in Lafayette and Baton Rouge should not be the driver of the politics of the races to succeed them. Rather, the civic leadership ought to push for something more than elected officials running for another job. What is the agenda for Lafayette in 2016? Where will the new mayor-president take Baton Rouge in 2017?
The mission isn’t as critical as Landrieu’s elevation amid crisis in 2010, but growth isn’t assured for anybody in today’s economy; Louisiana’s overall economic fragility, with the state budget in permanent crisis and oil and natural gas prices still the most important economic indicator, mean that communities need leadership more than ever.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.