City leaders recently unveiled ProsperityNOLA, a five-year plan to diversify the economy and boost job growth. The plan’s strategy has two main parts:
Build on established industries, such as the transportation and trade sector, that benefit from the Port of New Orleans
Nurture new business in emerging fields such as biotech and creative digital media
There’s a fair amount of “collaboration” and “synergy” in the text of ProsperityNOLA, but it’s not all buzzwords. By specifying key industries for incentives and assistance, the plan presents an identifiable strategy. Economic bets are placed, you could say.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and local business boosters, as you would expect, are optimistic about the city’s economic future. They’ll show you a slew of national articles that rank the city favorably. I agree with conservative local pundit James Varney, who recently observed that numerous small improvements are apparent. Perhaps they presage something good.
One would understand if New Orleanians are skeptical about the future, much less a new economic initiative that excites civic leaders. Haven’t numerous disappointments — from the oil bust, to riverboat casinos, to city leaders behind bars — taught us anything? Add disasters like the levee breaks and oil spill, and it only makes sense for New Orleanians to be skeptical about the chance of real progress. Better to hunker down and snicker.
I believe this is an unusually bad time for reflexive cynicism. I don’t see ProsperityNOLA as some magical plan, but it is the plan on the table at a crucial time. This isn’t one of those initiatives to dismiss out of hand.
In a previous column I held out hope for diversification and dynamic growth in New Orleans. I wondered if a local firm in an emerging industry could make good, becoming a new cornerstone for our economy. Omaha boasts 10 Fortune 1000 companies in a variety of industries; why can’t New Orleans create a couple?
The stakes are high right now. Disaster recovery dollars are drying up just as bills are coming due for flood protection upkeep, consent decree mandates, and repairs to water works. Will New Orleans power through the headwinds or falter and slide back into the doldrums? If the city can’t meet its short-term challenges, people will close it out of their long-term plans.
Remember those post-Katrina discussions about New Orleans becoming a permanently smaller boutique tourist town? Well, if we stumble now, that vision might become our best case scenario.
I know, I know. The past 40 years in New Orleans have rewarded the chronic skeptics. Prior to the flood, the city steadily lost jobs and graduates. Politicians thieved while schools crumbled and crime soared. Occasionally a flim-flam man would pass through and distract everyone with a big idea … which would eventuate into nothing.
That makes it easier to dismiss any new proposal that comes along. But recent history is not destiny, as Saints fans learned to their pleasure in 2010. Let’s always remember that new history can be made. It’s not impossible even when it seems so.
One of the top quotes in my previous column came from former federal prosecutor — and native New Orleanian — Sal Perricone. He’s the former federal prosecutor who retired after it came out that he had posted online comments under pseudonyms. In hundreds of posts he would bemoan the city’s infected culture and its inexorable devolution.
However, in this passage he argues for the new LSU hospital in Mid-City:
I am old enough to remember Poydras Street when it resembled the area now targeted for medical complex. It was sordid squalid street with no future, other than decaying warehouses, train tracks that cleaved the streets, an abandoned cemetery where only Poe would see a future.
Then came the idea of building a sports stadium. At first, like now people scoffed and derided the proposition. Bonds were sold, prices were quoted, and yes it cost thrice what they said it would cost. There was scandal-—but what is New Orleans without scandal—Omaha.
But look what the dome has done for the area! The only disgusting building on Poydras is City Hall–for many reasons–aesthetics is only one.
Rare positivity from Perricone!
The Superdome is just one example in New Orleans’ long history of innovation. Without putting a nostalgic glow on a highly imperfect past, let’s recall a few others: The first cocktail (Sazerac), the first dedicated movie theater (Vitascope Hall), a musical form called “jass” (jazz) that has endured nicely.
Those are innovations in entertainment. So why can’t New Orleans be the site for the next breakthrough in, say, creative digital media? TurboSquid, a company that sells 3-D models to video game developers, is a local leader in this emerging field.
We used to build things that were ahead of their time. The wood screw pumps Albert B. Wood invented a century ago are still being used today. Those pumps allowed the city to expand its footprint. Why can’t the next breakthrough in flood protection or coastal restoration — preferably an inexpensive one — also originate here?
Some of us get excited about the arrival of a new Wal-Mart, but every day we pass decades-old examples of New Orleans innovation. The low-price superstore concept originated at those former Schwegmann’s stores. Similarly, there’s a drugstore at nearly every intersection, it seems, but did you know New Orleans had the first registered high-standard apothecary shop in the U.S.?
These are just some examples of hometown innovation. There are plenty more, and I encourage you to find them.
“Then came the idea…” Perricone wrote. Let’s encourage more of them, and capitalize on the good ones. That doesn’t mean that all big notions are game-changers, or that it’s easy to invent extraordinary products.
By the same token, it doesn’t mean that we should uncritically accept every initiative labeled “ProsperityNOLA.” And it doesn’t mean that critics should be dismissed with, “Why do you hate prosperity” putdowns. But this is a crucial moment, and the plan on the table attempts to diversify the local economy in an inclusive way. That’s a worthy goal, which makes close scrutiny of the plan’s implementation all the more important.
It’s ambitious to think that the plan could help an innovative start-up succeed and emerge as a new foundational industry in New Orleans. But that’s basically what we need, both in the short term — for job growth and expansion of the tax base — as well as the long-term, to wean our local economy off its dependence on the hospitality sector.