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'Yes' to Economic Development


Businessman Arthur Pulitzer put it best last Wednesday in the City Council Chamber when he announced, 'We can become the city of "Yes' and not the city of "No.'" Pulitzer is a cofounder of the Horizon Initiative, a public-private partnership between City Hall and the business community that aspires to help New Orleans rebound after Katrina much like Miami's Beacon Council spearheaded an economic revival in south Florida more than two decades ago. In making his remarks to the council, Pulitzer was referring to the proposed partnership for economic development in New Orleans. In the packed council chamber, Pulitzer's message was greeted with enthusiasm and support.

But the day was not all about cheerleading. Kevin McCarthy, a senior social scientist at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, presented a vision with specific recommendations for the city's economic revitalization. RAND formed a partnership with seven universities in the Gulf States region and closely examined the economic development efforts of 17 other cities. McCarthy stressed that his goal wasn't to give a detailed blueprint for economic development, but rather to recommend the 'most effective organizational and strategic approaches" for accomplishing that goal.

The RAND Corporation's recommendations include:

New Orleans needs a comprehensive economic redevelopment design, which includes a vision of the city's goals and a plan for achieving them. The design must be transparent and authored by a wide range of community stakeholders with a diversity of views, so that all of New Orleans is represented and vested in the effort.

Economic development should be designed around a three-tiered public-private partnership made up of a governing board to set policy, a director of economic development (with a professional staff to carry out policy and coordinate activities), and a resource group to provide expertise.

The city's director of economic development should be hired by the governing board " not the mayor " for a five-year term and report to that board. The director, staff and operating costs require an annual budget of $2 million to $3 million drawn from both public and private sources. The city currently spends between $900,000 and $1.2 million a year on economic development, with little to show for it.

The plan should target retaining and supporting three core industries " maritime, oil and gas, and tourism " that have made or are making a significant post-Katrina recovery. This should be accomplished via physical infrastructure, a quality labor force and supportive governmental policy.

A second group of industries " biomedical, food processing and the small business sector " also are vital parts of the economy, but are slower in their recovery and will require further evaluation for a redevelopment strategy.

A third group " arts and entertainment and information and energy technology industries " show promising growth potential.

The city must recognize current barriers to redevelopment. The biggest problem is the uncertainty regarding levees and flood control. Additionally, the local labor force lacks both quality and quantity, and the city's relations with the business sector must improve.

New Orleans should take a regional approach to economic redevelopment and not one that focuses on the city exclusively.

If you're thinking that these recommendations sound like common sense, you're right. What made last Wednesday's presentation special was the fact that all of them were laid out in a single document. More importantly, it likely marked the first time that everyone in the room " a big room filled with big egos and fierce turf protectors " seemed to agree with nearly every one of the study's recommendations. Pulitzer said that he'd never seen a City Council 'as strong as this," and then he thanked New Orleans Recovery Director Ed Blakely.

What's this, a businessman complimenting New Orleans politicians and a City Hall bureaucrat " and not because he's asking for something? Okay, Pulitzer does want something: He and many others want Horizon's public-private partnership to happen.

So do we.

For far too long the city's Office of Economic Development has sputtered along under the control of various mayors. Later in the same meeting, Blakely endorsed the partnership and noted, 'We really don't have an Office of Economic Development." He's right. Former director Donna Addkinson quit in August and still hasn't been replaced. The current vacancy presents an opportune time for City Hall to let business people do what they do best: create more business.

Government must play a part, to be sure. Mayor Ray Nagin, conspicuously absent from the meeting, should streamline the city's permitting and licensing process for new businesses, and the City Council should approve changes that will provide the public's share of the funds needed to kick-start the new office. Recalling Pulitzer's hopeful comment, such a commitment would take us a big step closer to becoming the city of 'Yes."

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