In Conversation with Economic Development Leaders
In each of the Greater New Orleans region’s 10 parishes are economic development professionals who not only ensure that local businesses have the tools they need to survive, but that they also have the resources and support necessary to thrive. Jerry Bologna, Executive Director of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission, Meaghan McCormack, Executive Director of the St. Bernard Parish Economic Development Foundation, and Stanley Bienemy, Director of Economic Development for St. John the Baptist Parish, spoke with REGION about the state of their respective local economies—and how they make the region stronger as a whole.
Q: How would you describe the state of the local economy in your parish?
McCormack: Both the people and economy of St. Bernard Parish have always been incredibly resilient. We saw that tenfold when the pandemic hit and our businesses were able to pivot, stay open or use the downtime productively when the stay-at-home order was first issued. We saw restaurant owners quickly figure out how to offer curbside pickup, our commercial fishing community exploring cold storage and co-packing opportunities, and others use the time to think creatively and plan their next big venture. It’s these everyday heroes—small business owners—that make our parish’s economy so buoyant. Since then, our parish economy remains strong and is getting even more robust as a result of the diversification taking place.
Bologna: Our economy is extremely resilient and diverse in terms of industry. That’s one of the reasons why we finished 2020, from a revenue standpoint, above 2019. And I don’t think anyone would have predicted that when stay-at-home orders were issued in March, but I think that speaks to the resilience of our businesses and their ability to adapt to changing requirements. I’d also point to the willingness of our residents in Jefferson Parish to support local businesses.
Q: How has the local economy adapted to all the challenges brought forth during the past year, and how has your organization helped businesses overcome those challenges?
Bologna: Our focus at JEDCO has always been business retention—making sure they have the resources they need to expand and remain stable. When COVID first reared its head in Jefferson, we immediately jumped in to be a source of accurate, timely information for companies when programs were introduced, especially when it pertains to the deployment of capital, whether it be the PPP loans or the EIPL loans.
McCormack: In St. Bernard Parish, we’re thankful that the impact of COVID-19 wasn’t as drastic as in many other parishes in the region. Our economy does not rely heavily on tourism, and we didn’t see the drastic declines in hotel stays, restaurant tickets and traffic that many of our regional peers experienced. Throughout COVID-19, SBEDF was able to offer individual consulting for a number of businesses, especially as it relates to accessing PPP Loans, EIDL funding and assistance after the many tropical storms our parish faced.
Bienemy: Although the challenges have been many, our organization has worked to connect our small business owners with the resources they need to recover and rebuild. The St. John the Baptist Parish Business Training Center moved all of its programing to a virtual format. We also hosted informational sessions with Louisiana Economic Development (LED), Small Business Association and the Louisiana Procurement Technical Assistance Center.
Q: What are some of the services or programs local businesses have benefited from in your parish?
Bienemy: The St. John the Baptist Parish Business Training Center offers one-on-one consulting services, the Kauffman FastTrac program, Small and Emerging Business Roundtables and various training classes in partnership with LED. The parish also entered a partnership with the Southern University Law Center Technology and Entrepreneurship Law Clinic to secure printers for our FastTrac graduates. Ensuring that our business owners have the tools they need for success is key to their continued growth.
Bologna: When it comes to business retention, certainly tax incentive help comes to mind. We’ll walk business through the necessary steps in obtaining those tax incentives if they’re creating jobs or making large capital investments. We also have a number of resources for businesses to help them with marketing or finding vendors. But I would say one of the more unique tools we have at our disposal is that we have an in-house financing arm. We provide everything from SBA funding to Revolving Loans Funds, and we’re able to assist businesses to finance anything from equipment purchases to real estate. And that’s a great tool because the more we can get businesses to invest in their real estate, the more ingrained they are in the community.
McCormack: I’ll give you three. Small Business Saturday is the kickoff to an entire week-long celebration in St. Bernard Parish. The event is headlined by a 7-day shopper incentive program called Shop Small Week, steered by SBEDF & the St. Bernard Chamber of Commerce, along with a committee of local business owners and community organizations. Businesses offer daily discounts and prizes to lucky shoppers, driving sales throughout the Parish. Grow St. Bernard offers access to education on current trends and best practices for business operations, as well as one-on-one business consulting from the Louisiana Small Business Development Center. The program targets professionals across the region and features presentations and panel discussions led by esteemed leaders of the business community. Grow St. Bernard is low-cost and affords business owners and professionals the opportunity to build relationships with like-minded, motivated individuals. Startup St. Bernard, presented by the Meraux Foundation and the St. Bernard Economic Development Foundation, is an annual startup business challenge. Entrepreneurs are invited to apply for a chance to pitch their business to a panel of judges in St. Bernard Parish for over $100,000 in prizes. Our pitch competition here in St. Bernard boasts the largest prize package in the region, offers both finalists $5,000 in cash each, and guarantees the winner a host of in-kind services including office space, accounting/bookkeeping, marketing/advertising, website and graphic design services, and even legal services. The prize package is everything you’d need to turn your business idea or start-up into a well-run enterprise!
Q: What are some of the reasons why your parish continues to be a desirable location for businesses of all sizes?
Bologna: Logistics. Our abilities with water, rail and road are a great advantage for businesses. Additionally, we have a very productive workforce, a business-friendly environment and a cooperative government. We call it the Three-Legged Stool: a cooperative government, an engaged leadership and a strong civic community. Typically, we’re all on the same page, and I don’t think businesses find that everywhere.
Bienemy: St. John the Baptist is located less than an hour away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which makes both metropolitan areas easily accessible. The parish also has a campus of the River Parishes Community College located in Reserve that is ready to assist with any workforce training needs. My favorite reason is the people. The people of St. John are welcoming and always willing to help their neighbors.
Q: What’s the future outlook on the local economy in your area?
McCormack: Things are looking up downriver. That’s our tagline at SBEDF, but it’s also the truth. The recent purchase of 1,100 acres of land by the Port of New Orleans for a potential $1.5 billion container terminal development would put our community on the map as an international trade hub. In October, The Ranch Film Studios announced they will expand film production operations in St. Bernard Parish, bringing the partners one step closer to realizing the filmmaking center and cultural arts hub they envisioned when they opened the film studios’ doors in Chalmette in 2014. And so far for the year, our Parish Government has issued 130 new residential construction permits (44 for the month of April alone), which is more than one per day. If that number tells you anything, it should be telling you that our community is so desirable that people are moving here, investing here and building lives here in droves.
Bienemy: The future is bright! I believe St. John will grow in spite of all the challenges of COVID-19. We will continue to work hard to build a resilient community.