As we enter the 2021 spring season, it is only natural to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come since the shutdown in March 2020. It seems like just yesterday when people were ordered to stay at home. Businesses were shuttered. Schools were closed. Restaurants were limited to drive-through. Wave after wave of layoffs were announced. Uncertainty filled the air.
“We became very disconnected from one another and thus had very little sense of what our economy was doing. We all felt in the dark,” said Blake Chatelain, President and CEO of Red River Bank. Out of the darkness comes light—the LSUA Cenla Economic Dashboard.
Discussions began about the need for local data on the economy. Dr. Paul Coreil, LSUA Chancellor, Deborah Randolph, President of the Central Louisiana Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Jim Clinton of CLEDA (now Louisiana Central) were among the business leaders consulting with Chatelain in the beginning.
For Chancellor Coreil, economic growth of the central region was LSUA’s priority. He saw the impact of COVID first-hand as he transitioned the university to online. “There was great need for accurate economic data from the Central Louisiana region so that business owners and managers could make informed decisions based on data they could trust and not speculation,” recalled Coreil. On April 7, 2020 Chatelain shared a report he had obtained from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce with Coreil, Randolph, and Clinton. The report, entitled “COVID-19 Indicator Dashboard”, contained economic data on the Capital Region.
The chancellor agreed the need for this information was critical. He asked Dr. Randall Dupont, then Chair of the Department of Business Administration, if the department could develop and publish an economic dashboard for our region. “Dupont responded immediately,” said Coreil, and within six days the first issue of the Cenla Economic Dashboard was published. Since that time, the LSUA Department of Business has expanded to the College of Business and Dr. Dupont has been promoted to Dean of the College—a decision that has paid significant dividends to LSUA’s business students and also to the larger business community.
Dupont—the mastermind, creator, and author of the Cenla Economic Dashboard—is a native of Louisiana whose family settled the Dupont community in Avoyelles in the early 1800s. He grew up in Terrebonne, but spent his weekends and summers with family in Central Louisiana. He earned a degree in History from Nicholls State. After college, he worked in rural electrification in Louisiana, before joining newly elected Congressman W. J. “Billy” Tauzin in Washington D.C. as a Legislative Assistant working on energy and business issues before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. He returned to Louisiana to manage the Congressman’s New Orleans office during Tauzin’s gubernatorial bid, after which he returned to rural electrification industry in Mississippi. Dupont earned an MBA from the University of Mobile, where he later taught for 18 years and won the university’s top teaching and research awards. He later earned a Doctorate in Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He served as a senior consultant of strategic management for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and as a management specialist on international projects in Croatia and Bangladesh. Dupont is a professor of management at LSUA in addition to serving as Dean.
A primary challenge was to put the information in the hands of business and community leaders. Chamber President Randolph had the answer. She would distribute it to the Chamber’s 1,500 members. Randolph recalled that she, Chatelain, and Scott Poole, President and COO of Roy O. Martin, served on the Louisiana Legislative Advisory Task Force (LLATF) as appointees of State Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder. The Advisory Task Force’s mission was to jump start the Louisiana economy.
“We met for several months to develop policy recommendations to the Legislature aimed at fostering economic recovery for the state in the wake of the impact of the pandemic. Each region of the state provided an overview of the impact of the pandemic to date,” said Randolph. As president of the regional chamber, Randolph presented for the Central Louisiana region. “The Dashboard provided great data for inclusion in the presentation. Many of the policy recommendations from the LLAFT became pieces of legislation, and many of those were passed into law,” she continued.
The first issue was only 10 pages and published April 13, 2020, just one month after the shutdown. It focused on mobility in Central Louisiana, with social distancing scores for various parishes, the number of COVID cases, unemployment claims, and the impact on job openings. The impact of COVID on consumer spending was paramount in everyone’s mind. So the second issue on April 20, 2020 included sales tax revenue for Rapides, Alexandria, and Pineville, with tax revenue serving as a proxy for consumer spending. Travel was expected to be hit hard by the stay-at-home order, so vehicle sales tax revenue and hotel occupancy tax data were added as well.
The April 20, 2020 issue published a Brookings Institution study on the vulnerability of metro areas (MSA) in the U.S. based on their share of “at risk” industries. MSAs considered highly vulnerable had a large share of employment in industries at risk of layoffs, such as oil and gas, transportation, travel arrangements, leisure and hospitality, and employment services. Looking back, the study proved remarkably accurate. Of the 380 metro areas in the U.S., Houma-Thibodaux ranked the most vulnerable in the state and eighth most vulnerable in the nation, with New Orleans and Lafayette ranked second and third statewide. Alexandria ranked the least vulnerable in Louisiana and in the bottom 10% of vulnerability nationwide.
For the first three months, the Dashboard was published twice a month before going monthly in July. By May 2020, the full impact of the pandemic could be seen for the first time in the sales tax data. Consumer activity in March 2020 was reflected in April tax collections, which was available in May. Although residents were under the stay-at-home order, consumer spending was down only 6% in Rapides, with hotel occupancy showing the largest decline. Initial unemployment claims peaked in early April and remained high throughout the month, while continued claims rose steadily. Employment in accommodation and food services, healthcare, retail, and construction sectors were hardest hit. By late-April, 29,000 in Central Louisiana had filed for initial unemployment benefits and 17,000 had continued claims.
The May 2020 Dashboard reported worsening mobility and social distancing scores in Cenla according to Google, Apple, and Unacast as cases of COVID-19 continued to rise in Central Louisiana. Initial unemployment claims were trending downward from the peak in early April. Sales tax data for Avoyelles, Evangeline, and St. Landry were added to the Dashboard as well as housing data for the Alexandria market. Small businesses in Louisiana remained optimistic, however, according to a Small Business Pulse Survey by the U.S. Census. Thirty-two percent of small businesses in Louisiana expected recovery in 2 to 3 months compared to 24% nationwide. Accounting for the optimism, perhaps, was the fact that 48% of Louisiana small businesses had received assistance from the Payroll Protection Program compared to 38% nationally.
The June issues gave the first look at April unemployment data. Of the 280,000 unemployed statewide, 5,700 were in Alexandria. Alexandria’s unemployment rate more than doubled in two months, standing at 9.9% in April, compared to 4.5% in February. Nevertheless, it was the lowest rate among the metropolitan areas of the state. At the time, New Orleans had an unemployment rate of 19%, Baton Rouge 13%, and Lafayette and Shreveport 13%. The June issue also gave the first full impact of the pandemic on consumer spending. Sales activity in April 2020, the first full month of the stay-at-home order, was reported in May tax collections and made available in the June issue. Vehicles sales were impacted the most, down 48% from March 2020 and down 33% from a year earlier. Surprisingly, consumer spending was down only 7% in Rapides, most likely the result of stimulus spending.
Several new data elements were added in June, such construction permits, air passenger traffic, and sales tax revenue from three additional parishes. Permit data from the Rapides Area Planning Commission included upcoming construction activity in Allen, Avoyelles, Evangeline, La Salle, Pineville, and Rapides. Likewise, the City of Alexandria began supplying commercial and residential permit data as well. Also in the June issue, readers got the first look at passenger traffic at Alexandria International Airport. AEX reported passenger throughput as a percent of year ago traffic averaged 14% in April and May compared to 7% nationally. And finally, sales tax data for La Salle, Catahoula, and Concordia were included.
By July 2020, the economy was improving and the Dashboard became a monthly publication targeting a mid-month release date. Each issue now averages 70 to 75 pages, a far cry from the 10 to 13 pages in the beginning. Most topics have remained the same since then. However, the Dashboard’s content changes to reflect the needs of the community. For example, the focus on COVID-19 has shifted from cases to vaccinations and new business growth is being monitored. Currently, data on online spending in Rapides is being gathered and analyzed.
Looking back over the past year, Chatelain says he is thankful LSUA stepped up to fix the problem of missing data on the local economy. “Today, I think this Dashboard is one of the best and most comprehensive ones that I have seen. It has shed new light on the activity occurring in our region and helps all of us make more informed decisions,” he said.
“Chamber member businesses and industries report that the Dashboard is a valuable tool for assessment, response and planning purposes during the pandemic and for the recovery period. It continues to be helpful for the Chamber and other economic development organizations in helping us to best allocate our time and resources,” Randolph added.
What does the future hold? According to Dupont, the Dashboard will continue expanding its coverage. With the addition of the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce and the Concordia Chamber of Commerce as distributors next month, the publication will reach 3,000 business and community leaders monthly from the Texas to Mississippi border.