New Orleans, Baton Rouge leaders make trip to the southwest with objective of forming regional bonds

The Advocate

PHOENIX — About 150 business and civic leaders from the Baton Rouge and New Orleans metropolitan areas came together this week for the second three-day Super Region Canvas trip — this time to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona — to learn from the Southwestern U.S. leaders how to form regional bonds in southeastern Louisiana.

The trip is a semi-annual trip to progressive U.S. cities that is organized by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. The idea is that leaders representing government, the private sector and nonprofit organizations will see enviable programs, policy and infrastructure in other cities and try to emulate the ideas back home.

In 2013, BRAC reached out to its New Orleans counterpart, GNO Inc., and invited its members to join forces, giving leaders from the two metro areas an opportunity to form a better relationship.

John Young, the Jefferson Parish president, noted that the Tampa-Orlando, Florida, metro area — the site of the 2013 Canvas trip — has a combined 4 million people, which is almost the entire population of Louisiana.

“We need to work together to compete in a global economy,” he said Sunday morning at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport before the group departed on their chartered flight. Young, who attended the 2013 trip, appeared only to see the group off Sunday; he did not go to Arizona with them.

The group is made up of about 60 percent Baton Rouge area leaders and 40 percent New Orleans area leaders. A few people from the Lafayette area are included.

Among the attendees are East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet and St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is not on the trip, nor are any New Orleans City Council members. Last year, Landrieu’s office sent Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin. This year Rebecca Conwell, an economic development adviser to Landrieu, is attending.

At least nine council members are attending the trip from East Baton Rouge, Ascension, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes, as well as the leaders of the chambers of commerce from Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“This regional experience puts us on the same road and makes sure we’re working in the same direction,” Holden said Sunday to the group.

Previous destinations have included Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; Pittsburgh; Louisville, Kentucky; and central Florida.

The trips, which cost $2,200 per head this year, are jam-packed with speakers talking about different city and industrial issues. But the getaways, always housed in plush accommodations with regular evening cocktail hours, are also ripe for networking.

Holden referred to the trip as a “reunion” for leaders, and others have joked that they have turned into a bit of a “spring break for officials.” In 2013, the group of leaders caught a basketball game and enjoyed karaoke at Universal Studios.

In March, though, Baton Rouge Community College broke ground on the Center of Excellence for Transportation Technology — an idea that was born from a trip in 2009 to Richmond, Virginia, where the group learned about how community colleges in the area were working directly with industry leaders to address workforce needs, according to Adam Knapp, BRAC’s CEO and president.

Former Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May and All Star Automotive President Matt McKay were on that trip.

“Joe asked Matt if he got any of his workers from the training centers at LCTCS, and Matt said, ‘No, your product is so bad we hire from Texas,’ ” Knapp recalled. “So Joe said, ‘Let’s fix that.’ ”

Phoenix and Tucson, dubbed the Sun Corridor, were selected for this trip because they provide a good example of two regional areas working together to compete on a larger stage.

The two Southwestern cities are 108 miles apart, compared with Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which are 80 miles apart. But the Arizona super region makes up about 5.1 million people, compared to the Louisiana super region, which has 2.2 million people — a number that includes each city’s surrounding parishes.

The Arizona and Louisiana super regions are both similar in poverty rates, unemployment rates and the median age of their populations.

“We do a lot of things wrong here: We don’t spend enough money on higher education, we believe low taxes are the key to everything and we pass inappropriate draconian bills,” said Grady Gammage Jr., a speaker from Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Some of the Louisiana delegation laughed from their seats, noting the parallels to Louisiana politics.

Gammage spoke about “megapolitans” and the relationship between Phoenix and Tucson. He made a joke about a picture of a home in Tucson, noting that he’s a Phoenix resident so he’s apt to take digs at the sister city.

“We’re dramatically different cities, still learning how to get along,” he said.

The south Louisiana group is staying at a first-class resort just outside of Phoenix in Scottsdale for the first two days and then heading to Tucson on Tuesday before returning home. In addition to regionalism, the seminars also will focus on education, health care, transportation and infrastructure and building an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Downtown Phoenix was a ghost town for decades until the city invested in a light rail, funded by a tax, ultimately spurring economic development, according to Christine Mackay, Phoenix’s economic development director.

Rather than focusing on attracting businesses to relocate in Phoenix, city leaders are building their economy by supporting entrepreneurs, she said.

She noted a Phoenix-based software developer called WebPT started three years ago with two employees and now has more than 300 employees.

“If you continue to approach economic development the way we used to, you will fail,” she said.

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