Our Super Region
The key to being a global competitor is to come together.
The cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Houma are each the center of a metro area— a larger geography where labor is pooled, and innovation and production are concentrated. In recent years, important economic interconnections have begun to extend beyond metro areas, and a “super region” is forming across these three proximal metros.
The number of cross-metro commuters between New Orleans and its adjacent metros grew 26 percent between 2004 and 2014, despite the substantial loss of jobs and population in New Orleans post–Katrina. In 2014, over 29,000 workers commuted from the Baton Rouge metro to the New Orleans metro, and more than 30,000 workers commuted in the opposite direction. Another roughly 12,000 workers commuted from the Houma metro to the New Orleans metro in 2014, while about 10,000 commuted the opposite direction. This data suggests that the workforce of Southeast Louisiana is increasingly integrated.
Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Houma-Thibodaux are highly synergistic to each other in their economic roles. For example, the oil and gas industry served by Houma-Thibodaux’s Port Fourchon and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port is the literal feedstock of the petrochemical manufacturing sectors in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans metros. The three regions also share complementary specializations in heavy construction and engineering, shipping, waste management, higher education, seafood processing and certain advanced manufacturing sectors.
At the heart of Southeast Louisiana’s economy are sophisticated heavy construction, engineering and scientific consulting, and water transportation. The greatest challenge for the region will be redeploying innovative and workforce assets to rebuild coastal marshes that protect economic infrastructure, including ports, pipelines, refineries, chemical plants, and ship yards. Wetland restoration activities will not only be synergistic to the region’s efforts toward economic modernization, they will also be key to the region’s overall sustainability.
In an ever-more globalized economy, regional collaboration is also critical to achieve the scale needed to compete. With a 2015 population of 2,480,791 and 1,131,050 jobs in 2016, a Southeast Louisiana “super region” is comparable in size to the Portland, Oregon metro area, larger than the Nashville metro, and eclipses the burgeoning Louisville-Lexington super region. Leaders across greater New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Houma-Thibodaux have come together to form the Southeast Super Region Committee to collaborate on economic development strategies — a sign of the escalating sophistication and alignment of regional leadership.
Much can be learned from The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, the largest research park in the country. First envisioned in the 1950s as a way to strategically invest the meager resources of a poor state, leaders in North Carolina invested heavily in higher education and transportation to connect the area’s three universities. This multi-decade strategy yielded today’s economic powerhouse that has attracted billions of dollars of investment from major corporations, and changed the economic trajectory of North Carolina.
For the Southeast Louisiana Super Region to be competitive, leaders need to commit to long-term strategies that increase skilled workforce, accelerate private investment, and efficiently move workers around the Super Region. With 53 percent of the state’s population and 56 percent of its jobs, a multi-decade effort focused on developing Southeast Louisiana could change the economic fortunes of our entire state.
Allison Plyer is executive director and chief demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans. Dr. Plyer is author of The New Orleans Index series, developed in collaboration with the Brookings Institution to track the region’s progress toward prosperity, and she leads The Data Center’s research on the development of the water management cluster in Southeast Louisiana as published in The Coastal Index series.