North Shore ‘visioning’ study suggests merging 7 organizations | The Times-Picayune

Faced with recurring questions about what the North Shore wants to look like in 20 years and how it would get there, a group representing public and private sectors in St. Tammany Parish and beyond set out to answer the questions and create a “vision and branding statement.” The group, led by the Northshore Community Foundation, did just that last year, employing the assistance of Greater New Orleans Inc. and the branding firm Trumpet to come up with:

The Northshore, North Of Your Expecations

“The Northshore isn’t just another Louisiana neighborhood. It’s one of those rare places that combines quality of life with accessibility, a progressive business climate with natural beauty, and vibrant culture with community. For those who love Louisiana’s way of life, there’s no place better. Come exceed your expectations on the Northshore.”

Now parish leaders are digesting a consultant’s recommendations on how best to move forward with efforts to promote, preserve and improve economic development and quality of life. The recommendations — Part 2 of a $90,000 initiative called the Northshore Visioning Project – include consolidating some organizations such as the East St. Tammany and St. Tammany West chambers of commerce and various economic development groups, and creating a regional partnership board appointed by Parish President Pat Brister to guide the endeavor.

Because of the large number of civic-oriented organizations, non-profit groups and meetings in St. Tammany, civic leadership is diluted and monetary resources spread too thinly, said the study, by SSA Consultants of Baton Rouge. Most of the private funding for the various agencies, about $500,000 per year, comes from only 30 individuals and businesses, the study said.

Susan Bonnett Bourgeois, president and chief executive of Northshore Community Foundation, said the idea is to bring groups together, share services and eliminate duplication. That will free up time, resources and money. With a single board overseeing the efforts, St. Tammany could better harness the talent and energy of the various groups, she said.

“It makes sense,” Bourgeois said. “You have three economic development organizations for one parish.”

Quality of life is the “paramount piece” of the equation, she said, regardless of the exact organizational structure that emerges. “If we do nothing else but make our decisions through that lens, this parish and this region is ultimately much better served. It not only becomes a unified message, it’s a definer.”

The study identified seven organizations (all but two are non-profits) with similar missions involving quality of life, economic development or both:

  • St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation
  • St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce
  • East St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce
  • St. Tammany Development District, a government entity
  • Northshore Business Council
  • St. Tammany Tourist and Convention Commission, a government entity
  • Northshore Community Foundation.

The unified board would be made up of key business leaders representing the governing boards of each of the seven organizations as well as the parish president, according to the study. The different organizations would provide money which would be pooled at the regional level to provide a larger base of resources, according to the model presented by the consultants. The study says elimination of duplicated program and services and the redeployment of those funds would provide an immediate improvement in the efficient and effective use of public and private dollars

It recommended consolidating the Economic Development Foundation, the Development District and the parish government administration’s Economic Development Department. The two chambers of commerce should also move toward a regional partnership, it says.

Many business and industry leaders who were interviewed for the study questioned the need for two separate chambers, according to the consultants.

The Northshore Community Foundation, which has the broadest geographic reach, should be the keeper of the parish’s vision, the study said. “I don’t think either chamber will tell you today they are ready to merge,” Bourgeois said. “But they appear ready to look and see what makes sense for them to do together.”

Indeed, leaders of the two chambers have already met to discuss consolidation of some services and holding more events together. “I think it’s way overdue,” said Lacey Toledano, chief executive officer of the St. Tammany West chamber. “The east-west thing, it’s time for it to go away.”

Toledano said she would stop short of using the “m-word” (merger) but look at ways the two chambers can consolidate services and speak with one voice. Having one website and a single communications department are possible starting points, she said. A good example, she said, is the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which represents a nine-parish area.

In a message to St. Tammany West chamber members, Toledano and Dawn Sharpe, chief executive of the East St. Tammany Chamber, said, “Formal steps towards a potential merger to create one chamber with two locations, shared staff and promote one message, begins now. Where the journey takes us is yet to be determined, but we move forward with open minds and hearts.”

In an interview this week, Sharpe said the two chambers have been talking for years about ways to come together and speak with a united voice. “I do believe that it’s important that we show a unity in our parish.”

However, Sharpe said, it is important that each chamber maintain its own identity in order to best serve its members. “We definitely feel it’s important that we keep chambers on both side of the parish because of the cultural diversity that we have.”

Bonnie Eades, executive director of the Northshore Business Council, said her organization was “all in,” calling the study’s recommendations “a fabulous idea.”

Some of the organizations could end up operating under one roof some day, she said, sharing administrative services and saving money.  “Why not join hands in similar missions. It’s efficient and really targets the top goals of our region.”

But T.J. Smith Jr., vice-chairman of the tourist commission and a member of the Parish Council, said he and other commissioners have questions and concerns about the study and its findings. “It begs the question, ‘Will there be any need for a tourist commission if this moves forward and takes shape and becomes a reality,’ ” Smith said.

The commission’s mission, to promote tourism and projects that will draw people to St. Tammany, is different from the other organizations in the study, he said. “Whether we should even be a part of this is another question that I have.”

The commission also is concerned about the first of three “high-priority tasks” the study listed for the regional partnership board. It calls for researching the parish’s hotel and motel tax and making recommendations for efficient use of the revenue for quality of life, economic development and tourism.

The tourist commission now gets about $1.5 million yearly from the tax, making up almost its entire budget, Smith said. “Yes, that did cause some concerns for the tourist commissioners.”

Commissioners also have concerns about governance and the appointment process for the new board, he said.

The study also lists as other board priorities:

  • Making recommendations for co-location of organizations to create organizational efficiency.
  • Determining three signature initiatives to pursue in the near term.

Bourgeois said nominees for the regional board are already being submitted to Brister for her consideration. Acting on the consultant’s recommendations right away is key, she said.

“When you are talking about this sort of change, momentum is important. When you lose that momentum on something, it dies.”

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