Business, industry thought leaders George Swift and Daniel Groft optimistic about future of SW La.
Published 8:49 am Sunday, August 14, 2022
Southwest Louisiana is embarking on a new chapter as it continues to recover from the business disruptions caused by the pandemic and the weather fiascoes that followed.
“Despite all that we have been through, the area is resilient and the people are strong,” said George Swift, president and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. “We don’t need to forget that we had just come off about $45 billion in projects that created over 15,000 permanent jobs and having that extra industrial base has helped us to recover.”
Swift said Southwest Louisiana has about twice that much in the pipeline that should come through in the next two to three years.
“We’re going to have another big increase in industrial expansion plus we have the recovering economy with people still buying a lot of building supplies, furniture, appliances, things like that. Sales taxes have been pretty good,” Swift said. “Business is generally good in the area.”
While several small businesses in the area have not returned, Swift said others are coming back stronger, such as the newly opened Pat’s of Henderson and the announcement that repair work has begun at the Capitol One Tower.
He also cited the economic benefits the area will receive as hurricane mediation begins between policy holders and their insurers.
“We’re poised for a good future,” Swift said.
Daniel Groft, director of the HC Drew Center for Business and Economic Analysis at McNeese State University, said Southwest Louisiana continues to be an “international center of importance.”
“When you look at LNG export volumes, we account for over 15 percent down in Cameron,” Groft said. “That has really helped the port and the ship channel recover. We’re shipping a lot of LNG to Europe, we’re shipping to Asia, everywhere.”
“There are areas around the country that would give anything to have an industrial base like this and I think we take it for granted because we grew up with it and we’re several generations into it,” Swift said. “If we didn’t have an industrial base, we would have a lot less of everything because an industrial job will easily create five to six jobs in the community — things like medical services, restaurants, service stations, insurance companies, car dealers, all of that feeds off those industrial jobs.”
Groft said the area is slowly and steadily gaining employment and once the announced industrial projects finalize their funding and construction plans, that employment growth will only increase.
“We are above where we were in terms of jobs prior to the storm; we’ve gained about 6,400 jobs,” Groft said. “We’re still not at pre-pandemic levels because we got hit really hard by the pandemic and really hard by the storms.”
While construction employment has grown since the storms, the hospitality sector is still down by about 1,600 jobs. Groft said the area should be above pre-pandemic levels in the next two years.
Despite Isle of Capri being closed, gaming revenues are also close to pre-pandemic levels with revenues per admission spiking and continuing to stay at higher levels.
“Gaming is a big success because the revenues went to zero during the pandemic and then it cratered again during the storms because they were closed,” Groft said. “Now we’re at those previous levels even though Isle of Capri is shut down and we have one less gaming institution. Once Horseshoe begins, that will employ about 700 people and will probably grow the market and not cannibalize it.”
Groft said when the census came out of the Southwest Louisiana Metropolitan Statistical Areas lost more in percentage points because of migration than any other MSA in the country.
“We need to get people back, get them working, get them places to live and get our labor force back up because Calcasieu has about 3 percent less labor force people to work in general then it did prior to the pandemic,” Groft said. “We have a lot of open jobs. Calcasieu has a great deal more job openings than unemployed.”
Swift said every business he knows of is looking for workers, with some shortening their hours until their staffing needs are met.
McNeese State University and Sowela Technical Community College have the necessary courses to train the workforce, and there are grants available to help adults return to school, Swift said.
Swift said the area will need “vision, focus and commitment” to handle some of the upcoming projects in the works.
“Chennault International Airport has new acreage from the golf course for development but it needs more water and sewer capacity. So does the Lacassine Industrial Park and the Beauregard Airport,” Swift said. “It’s not the most glamorous thing but if we make those investments now it will pay off many years in the future.”
Swift said the area’s predecessors had the vision to create the ship channel, which has given the area the industrial base it has.
“They had the vision and got it done,” Swift said. “The Chamber many years ago pushed to get a junior college here and that turned into McNeese State University. Our Chamber bridge task force has been working for five years and we now have the Interstate 10-Calcasieu River Bridge project in motion.”
Swift said in the longer term, the area needs to continue to focus on quality of life to keep people here and attract new ones.
“We need to keep our local people here,” Swift said. “That’s the biggest thing. We must have amenities they like in the community, like parks and activities and bike lanes. We need to keep our young people here and attract new ones because we don’t have enough in the workforce to fill all the positions. We need to make ourselves a region of choice.”
Swift said the area’s economy is on a good trajectory.
“The state of Southwest Louisiana is good,” he said. “Considering what we’ve been through, we’re good and we have a strong forecast.”
Swift said an indicator of the area’s strong economy is the amount of inquiries he receives from businesses looking to move to the region.
“Several fast food restaurants want to come here and we have about 32 industrial projects we’re working on,” he said. “Plus national recognition from Site Selection magazine put us in the top 20 economic development groups in the nation, which puts us up there with Nashville, Austin and Baton Rouge. That’s all good indicators that we’re coming back.”
Editor’s note: George Swift and Daniel Groft share more insights and analysis for the future of the region’s infrastructure and economic health on Tuesday’s American Press business cover.