In 2007, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and Baton Rouge Area Chamber jointly funded a study to explore the feasibility of a new international airport that would be located roughly halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Officials in both cities had been kicking around the concept for several years, and the Capital Region’s leadership especially liked the idea. A major international airport near Donaldsonville or thereabouts would put the facility practically in Baton Rouge’s back yard and would help spur economic development in the Capital Region.
New Orleans, however, wasn’t wild about the proposal. Less than three years after Hurricane Katrina, the city was still in serious recovery mode, and tensions were high between the business and political leadership in the state’s two largest cities. The new airport would diminish the need for Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner, and would do more harm to the metro area economy in the short run than good.
As it turned out, Booz Allen, the consulting firm that conducted the study, didn’t like the idea either. The consultants cited data showing that the market wasn’t big enough to support a new international airport, and also pointed out that the FAA likely wouldn’t fund it anyway.
The report wasn’t what BRAF and BRAC wanted to hear. Still, the leadership of both groups made the findings public, going so far as to present the report with New Orleans officials at a press conference in that city.
More than seven years later, the way Baton Rouge business leaders handled the airport study—even though it was a hard pill for them to swallow—is considered the beginning of a thaw in what were then very icy relations between the two cities. Numerous business leaders in both cities still talk about the event and the positive effect it had on their relationship. They characterize it as the foundation on which a newfound spirit of regional cooperation was built.
“BRAC and BRAF could have buried that report,” says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of the economic development group GNO Inc. “Instead, they came down to New Orleans and said, ‘We have to get behind (Armstrong) as the international airport for the area.’ It really mattered a lot.”
That study mattered because it helped build trust between the business leadership of the two cities—trust that had been lacking prior to Katrina and was all but wiped out immediately after. Today, that level of trust and the regional cooperation it has engendered is one of the most significant and positive legacies of Katrina. After years of competing over crumbs—and watching markets like Houston and Atlanta bypass both New Orleans and Baton Rouge—the cities are finally working together, at least in the area of economic development.
Is it too little too late? Perhaps. Is there still room for improvement? No doubt. But the relationship between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is arguably better than it has ever been, and both communities are beginning to see results.
“This is the best I have seen relations between the Baton Rouge and New Orleans business communities in my lifetime,” says Bill Hines, a New Orleans attorney with Jones Walker and one of the Crescent City’s most prominent business and civic leaders. “There is very real cooperation and a lot of people don’t even realizing it’s going on.”
‘IT GOT UGLY’
It’s astounding, really, to hear business leaders talk about the New Orleans-Baton Rouge relationship in such glowing terms, especially when you realize how far the two cities have come in such a short time. The first couple of years after the flood were some of the worst in the history of strained relations between the two cities. Fueling the tension in the aftermath of Katrina was the prominent leadership role BRAF assumed in the recovery effort, raising tens of millions of dollars for disaster relief. Some New Orleans business and political leaders were threatened, and felt the leadership of Baton Rouge was prematurely dancing on the Crescent City’s grave.
To be fair, many Baton Rouge leaders genuinely believed New Orleans was finished. Like many around the country, they didn’t think the city would ever regain its former stature as the state’s largest city, much less that of a world-class tourist destination.
“Friends here used to take me to business dinners and it was very condescending,” recalls one New Orleans business leader. “They would say, ‘It’s over.’ And I would say, ‘Guys, it’s not over.’ It really got ugly.’”
It didn’t help matters when BRAF funded a study to help market the arc from Lake Charles to Slidell along Interstates 10 and 12—what we now call the 10-12 corridor—and intentionally left New Orleans out. At the time, BRAF leaders said they were concentrating on where the state’s population growth was occurring. But the omission was unforgivable to New Orleanians and only fueled speculation that a power grab by Baton Rouge was at play.
Once it became clear, however, that New Orleans wasn’t dead and, in fact, was being reinvented as a leaner, meaner, more vibrant version of its former self, the condescension stopped and the tension started to ease. The two sides started to come together. The Donaldsonville airport study was the turning point.
“When Baton Rouge got behind that study it established a whole new level of trust,” says Gregory Rusovich, president and CEO of Transoceanic Shipping Co. and a former chairman of GNO Inc. “Everybody here was like, ‘Wow, they want to reach out to us. Let’s reach back.’”
In 2009, the two business communities came together again to lobby Gov. Bobby Jindal for state matching funds for a federal study into the feasibility of a passenger trail that would connect Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Jindal refused, saying the state could not afford such a service.
The governor’s decision dealt a blow to the project from which it has yet to recover. In a strange way, though, the defeat was unifying. It strengthened the resolve of the leadership of both cities to continue pushing for the project. They are still working together on it today.
“These two organizations pulled together in a historic sign of unity,” says Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp. “Even though it was unsuccessful, you had every mayor and parish president and business leaders making the case for south Louisiana for something. It was an indication to the organizations that they can actually pool their resources and pull together.”
MORE THAN MERE LIP SERVICE
From those efforts, the Southeast Super Region Committee was born. It’s a group composed of BRAC and GNO Inc. board members, and it meets bimonthly to discuss issues of shared concern—infrastructure, economic development, education reform, international trade, and coastal restoration. It’s the official manifestation of regional cooperation in southeast Louisiana and it’s starting to make a difference.
“There were probably a dozen business leaders between the two cities that clearly understood we needed to start having conversations,” says John Spain, executive vice president of BRAF. “They were very informal conversations early on and what was at first a working group got formalized five years ago into the Super Region Committee.”
In its first five years, the Committee’s biggest accomplishment to date has been the progress it has made in continuing to push for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge rail service. Earlier this year, BRAF commissioned a feasibility study into the idea and officials from both cities say they are more committed than ever to trying to make it a reality.
Beyond that, the Committee has begun to actively market the area as a super region, something that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Earlier this summer, Hecht and Knapp traveled together with representatives from Louisiana Economic Development and Entergy Louisiana to a trade fair in Frankfort, Germany. There, they promoted the Super Region as a premier location for process and chemical engineering industries and foreign direct investment. They worked their booth together, side-by-side, and so far have netted at least one prospect, a company that is coming to visit the region later this month.
Jointly marketing the region makes so much sense because pooling resources is the only shot New Orleans and Baton Rouge have of competing against much bigger markets. It also sends the right message to prospects, conveying that south Louisiana “gets” how to do economic development and is a unified, welcoming place to do business.
“Even when we are competing for business development projects that may be looking at Baton Rouge over New Orleans, or vice versa, the prospects like the fact that we compete very respectfully,” Hecht says. “They know that we want them to go to the market that is best for their company.”
Another accomplishment of the Super Region Committee is the joint canvass trips it has organized for the two business communities. For the past two years they have teamed up to visit, first, Orlando, Florida and, earlier this year, Tuscon, Arizona. The trips included dozens of business, civic and political leaders from both cities, who had a chance to get to know one another and visit, face-to-face, while also studying how other communities deal with issues related to transit, infrastructure, smart growth and economic development.
“Those were two very successful canvas trips,” Spain says. “The things we went to see and the reason we chose those cities was because of things both New Orleans and Baton Rouge were looking for.”
There are other examples of Super Region cooperation. The two business communities are teaming up on an effort to secure a direct international flight from New Orleans to Europe. Though no airline has yet committed, Rusovich, who has been involved in the discussions, says they are making headway—something that would not be possible without help from the Baton Rouge business community.
“If we were just presenting to the airlines by ourselves as New Orleans it would be problematic,” he says. “When we include Baton Rouge, all of a sudden we’re doubling the population. It’s a much better story to tell.”
The two communities have also teamed up on issues of education reform. They lobbied the Legislature successfully several years ago to pass the GRAD Act, which gives colleges and universities greater autonomy to set fees and tuition. They also pushed for Common Core and fought hard during this year’s session to keep higher ed from being gutted.
“When we team up we are a political force to be reckoned with,” Knapp says.
Business leaders say they are telling this story all over the country and that it is resonating. Unfortunately, it’s late in the game. So many opportunities have been missed.
“We should have been doing this a long time ago,” Rusovich says. “We’ve been working in silos. It’s changing now, but is it too late? Yes.”
There is still mistrust, too, at the political level. While the business leadership of both cities works together with unprecedented cooperation, state lawmakers don’t show that same spirit of togetherness when fighting over dwindling state dollars. Hines believes in some respects the political animosity at the legislative level is worse today than it was before Katrina.
There is also a lack of awareness outside of business leadership circles about the super region concept and the opportunities that exist in both markets. To help address that shortcoming, Jones Walker is marking the 10th anniversary of Katrina later this month with a simulcast that will be showed to the firm’s 225 attorneys in all three offices. It will feature a presentation on regional cooperation by Hecht, Knapp and Jason El Koubi, who heads the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, now called One Acadiana. After the presentation, the firm will have live virtual cocktail parties at all three offices.
It’s a way to make raise awareness about the southeast super region, which is finally more than just an idea but is a way of thinking and doing in south Louisiana. Hines and other see it as the phoenix that has come from the devastation of Katrina.
“We have made enormous progress and we’re all better because of it,” he says. “But I’m not completely sure it has stuck yet. It’s like a diet. We have to stick to it if we want it to work.”