Lanny Keller: Here are some upcoming challenges for Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge economy, others

The Advocate

For 19 years, Business Report publishers Rolfe McCollister and Julio Melara have hosted a January pep rally for business folks about the new year. But even with a Leadership Breakfast program characteristically focused on the positive, Melara could not help but note current events. “2016 was a very tough year,” he said this time. “It may have been the most challenging in modern times.”

Hard to argue with that.

Nor is 2017 a turning of the page, entirely, even if the focus was on the future, as vividly indicated by the status of two main speakers, new Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and new LSU head coach Ed Orgeron.

There are hangovers from the old year, even for the football team, although Coach O had a very positive outlook on his new recruits and coaches.

But the larger community faces tough leftover challenges. A verdict in the long (very long) federal investigation into Alton Sterling’s shooting must come, and community leaders are worried about unrest whatever the authorities’ decision.

While tornado damage in the metro area was relatively light compared to that in New Orleans East, the recent storms also highlighted the long and difficult recovery of residents and businesses from August floods; Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana’s delegation in Congress are trying to get more money for recovery, but Washington is focused on the new president’s Twitter account instead of the real suffering of American families.

Looking beyond that unfinished business from 2016, what are the new issues on the horizon? The mayor faces problems that are internal to city hall. Broome’s efforts to bring change to the Baton Rouge Police Department will be significant, for example.

What are looming external challenges? At the BR program, Adam Knapp of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber noted the years of positive job growth in the area. This year’s BRAC forecast is for more growth, albeit at a slightly slower rate than last; Knapp said the forecasts have tended to be conservative, so there is perhaps more upside potential.

The economic outlook of a region fueled by petrochemical manufacturing may be more positive because of President Donald Trump, as industries seek a lighter regulatory hand, but could also be more uncertain.

In the nation, a Brookings Institution study found, two of the 10 cities most vulnerable to trade disruptions are in Louisiana, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge — the two centers of the state’s petrochemical industries. Exports are vital to Louisiana’s economy, but no more so than in Baton Rouge. The new president seems actively hostile to the trade deals that will grow exports. That could be trouble in our industrial river cities.

Down the street from Broome’s office is the State Capitol, where she was a legislator for many years. With budget cuts to colleges and universities a commonplace during the years of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the city’s competitiveness is at serious risk. Absent meaningful tax reform, the economic drivers of a capital region may be melting down on Broome’s watch.

As colleges and universities go, so does talent.

Baton Rouge’s future depends on attracting intellectual capital in a knowledge economy. Knapp said the region ranks lower for in-migration of college graduates than peer cities studied by the Chamber.

“We’re competing for jobs when we are competing for talent,” Knapp said.

Can we effectively do so when LSU, as well as Southern University and other area campuses, continue to cut back instead of move forward?

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