The $12 Billion Parish Next Door
St. Tammany is hotter than ever, and Chris Masingill, CEO of the parish’s economic development organization, says this is only the beginning.
We have a significant number of folks that leave this parish every day to go to work up to 70 miles in one direction. These are individuals that are the best educated, highest paid. That’s the kind of talent that St. Tammany is producing in the region.
Two hundred years ago this year, the first steamboat crossed Lake Pontchartrain, offering the first real link between St. Tammany Parish (established 11 years earlier in 1810) and the Southshore. More steamboats would follow, then a railroad, and finally the first bridge in 1928.
Since those first links were established between the north and south sides of the lake, St. Tammany Parish has drawn residents with the promise of a quieter, more rural, even healthier way of life. (In the 1850s the U.S. Government named the Northshore the second-healthiest place in the country due to the few deaths it saw from yellow fever). Centuries later, in the midst of another global pandemic, St. Tammany is now the fourth-fastest growing parish in the state.
Charged with managing and continuing this growth, the parish’s three-year-old economic development organization, St. Tammany Corporation, has announced 12 new projects that represent a capital investment of over $48 million and created 374 new jobs just from July 2018 to March 2021. Its leader, Arkansas native Chris Masingill, counts among his fast accomplishments launching a five-year strategic plan called THRIVE2023 and creating the St. Tammany Partnership for Industry, Workforce and Economic Development, a collaborative workforce development and talent retention initiative.
Driven by what he describes as his own humble beginnings — his dad was a beat cop, his mom was a waitress and he struggled early on with severe dyslexia — Masingill said he’s inspired every day to solve problems and create better opportunities for the future of the parish, which he adds already benefits from a very educated workforce, lower cost of doing business and multiple thriving industries.
But will all this rapid economic growth threaten the quality of life that has been the parish’s biggest draw since the beginning? Masingill is convinced it doesn’t have to.
You’ve said one thing that attracted you to this job was that it was like a startup. Can you explain?
Yes. The leadership here in St Tammany did a reboot of economic development in 2018. They wanted to restructure the organization or organizations because there was an alignment of several entities that were doing economic development. They wanted to create a new strategy, a new playbook. And so, it was very appealing.
I feel like it was a fit for me because I’ve got very much of an entrepreneurial spirit, just in terms of how I operate and my management style. We run pretty fast. We’re full throttle. I love to show up and show out, and we have all kinds of ways that we do that through implementing our strategic initiatives, managing projects, working with our elected officials and economic development.
My whole purpose is to compete, and St. Tammany is the kind of place that has the resources, all of the ingredients, but it’s about putting those ingredients together in the right way to create the unbelievable product and make it all work.
What are the main mission and goals of St. Tammany Corp.?
Our goal is to be the destination of choice for building businesses, growing businesses, attracting talent and being an incredible place for quality of life. Businesses and families and talent, they recognize that we are a destination of choice. If you want to start a business, you want to grow a business, you want to raise a family here, you want to play here, you want to pray here, you want to go to school here, we’re at the top of your list.
Since even before Hurricane Katrina, the region has experienced some incredible growth.
Yes. In 1990, the population in St. Tammany was about 145,000. In 2000, it was 192,000. That’s 47,000 people added just in that 10-year period. Then in another 10 years we hit 234,000, which means that was an increase of another 42,000 people in the 2000s. You get into 2020, and now we’re at about 263,000, and we predict by 2030, we will be over 278,000 people.
So, we have to be ready for that. And infrastructure, we’ve got to be ready for that for occupation and educational opportunities because that’s how you keep your people. That’s how you attract the kind of talent that then, in turn, attracts more sophisticated businesses, more diverse businesses, because businesses go where talent goes.
Who are the big business players in St. Tammany?
We’ve got the three main industry sectors that we have really put some strategic focus on. The first is transportation and logistics — a significant industry sector for us. Companies like Rooms To Go and Medline are here, and now we’ve got the expansion of Medline in Tangipahoa Parish. We’ve got water transportation with companies like Florida Marine, we’ve even got some assembly and manufacturing-related industries like Dana Corp. We’ve got a lot of gas transportation-related companies that also sit right here in St. Tammany. This is a sector with significant potential for growth, particularly [in] warehousing and distribution, and logistics space. The expansion of the port in St. Bernard is also going to have a significant potential positive impact for us.
Business and professional services is another main sector for us. We have nearly 26,000 employees that represent that industry, which has a high average wage. We have a lot of corporate headquarters, financial services, advertising and public relations firms. Sterling Properties has its headquarters here on the Northshore, for example. We’re very competitive in this sector in terms of commercial office space availability, low rates, and a lower cost of doing business.
Third, I would say is scientific and technical services. We’ve got several local IT operations, cyber-security operations and companies doing government contracting in the IoT space. Probably the most famous example is Tulane’s primate lab. Another subset of that, which has a huge impact on the Northshore, is healthcare. We’ve got over almost 14,000 jobs that are in that sector — 3%, above the national average — and we saw almost a 22% growth in 10 years. When you start talking about what they contribute to the economy, just in taxes alone, it’s $20 million from healthcare.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for the parish?
What we need to do in economic development is make sure that we’re knocking down barriers. Do we have the right regulatory processes in place? How does government interface with businesses? We want to make sure we create the right kind of environment that can help businesses start and grow. Businesses love continuity, they love reliability, they like for things to be consistent, and very clear and understandable processes. Right now, we’re doing a major rewrite of our codes, and our parish president has initiated something called New Direction 2040, which is really helping to put a sense of development principles in place for what the future looks like for St. Tammany. We’re clearly very involved in that.
I think the other thing too, for us is that with that growth, you can never stop investing in infrastructure. The transportation arteries, the water and wastewater, the drainage, the coastal restoration, we have to make sure we’ve got the right things in place for surge protection. So, we’re working policy issues, we’re working regulatory issues, we’re managing actual projects. We’re providing some strategic leadership. We’re doing project management as it relates to initiatives. We’re actually facilitating projects on behalf of our government partners.
What about workforce? Are there challenges there?
About two and a half years ago we launched Thrive 2023, our five-year economic development strategic plan. But one of the complementary documents that we did with that was a full economic analysis that really reinforced our strategic focuses. It helped us identify our targeted industries and one of the things that we learned coming out of that exercise is that St. Tammany truly helps power the region with its talent. We have a significant number of folks that leave this parish every day to go to work up to 70 miles in one direction. These are individuals that are the best educated, highest paid. That’s the kind of talent that St. Tammany is producing in the region.
We have an amazing, talented workforce, but you’ve got to constantly make sure that you’re managing that, that you’re increasing the pipeline, which means you’re bringing more talent to your community, you’re creating more opportunities for educational attainment. When you look at the educational attainment in St Tammany, we have the highest educational attainment in the entire state. That doesn’t happen by accident, you’ve got to constantly make sure that you’re working with K through 12.
Every year, we as an industry will constantly survey our employers. We’re constantly working on these educational attainment issues and workforce training and development. When you ask a business wanting to relocate or expand, the top four out of 10 question or reasons or issues that businesses have center around talent.
Luckily, through relationships with [Northshore] Technical Community College, our relationship with K through 12, Parish Works and Southeastern [Louisiana University], we were able to really bolster our workforce training and development initiatives, and it just it makes us that much stronger.
In March 2021, the unemployment rates were:
Greater New Orleans 8%
St. Tammany 4.4%
Much of what attracts people to the Northshore is its more rural feel and quality of life. How do you keep that with all the growth?
That is the magic question, right? That’s the true challenge that economic development on the Northshore faces every day, because it’s a balancing act. Our quality of life is part of our competitive advantage and attractiveness of the Northshore. But here’s the reality. The reality is, is that from a historical context, we know that over the last 30 years, St. Tammany has undergone and is still undergoing an economic transition. We’ve had a major increase in population and when that happens — because of a good school system, because people feel safe because of cultural amenities and the natural assets that we have in Louisiana — then people want to actually work where they live. And so businesses start developing. It first started with retail, because retail follows the population. We have one of the highest median household income rates in the entire state. We are a desirable place where people want to live and raise a family.
But what has also happened in this economic transition is that the business world has also figured out this is actually a pretty significantly strategic place for business. And so over the last 10 to 20 years, you’ve seen a major influx of businesses, and the economic makeup of St. Tammany Parish has significantly changed.
All of this has created this constant balancing act about what does St Tammany want to be? And that’s what we try to do in economic development. We try to be the catalyst for that where we recruit the right kind of businesses that fit into the landscape of the culture, but also can contribute to that to that quality of life.
At the same time, I think people are shocked when I tell them when I tell them that St Tammany Parish has a $12 billion economy. Let me put that in perspective. That’s 15% of the Greater New Orleans region GDP, which is about $80 billion. So, if you take the 10 parishes that make up the NOLA region, we’re 15% of that GDP. St. Tammany Parish is 5% of the state GDP, which is $240 billion. We are producing a $12 billion economy in St Tammany Parish. Now that’s not done by being a bedroom community for New Orleans. And that’s what people have really been trying to reconcile in their world. Because, man, they love living here, they want to actually go to work here, they’d like to see those numbers actually shift. And we still have a significant number of people coming in, we’ve got over 30,000 people that come into this parish every day to fill those retail and service jobs, because they can’t afford to live here.
But you’ve got a third of the community that wants nothing to do with growth. They want the Causeway to be raised at 4:30 p.m. and that’s it. You’ve got the middle, which is — I really think is the majority of the citizens — who recognize that we need business to come into our community so they can help share the tax burden of delivering all these incredible services and having the kinds of things that we want in St Tammany Parish. So, there’s a good-sized group that’s in the middle that understands good, sustainable, responsible growth, and supports economic development for whatever that happens to be. And then you’ve got the other third, that says, ‘Look, St Tammany Parish is in the driver’s seat. We’re a major contributor to the economy, and we should go full bore. We have the ability to compete on a global scale with our business development, and we don’t need to turn that throttle back.”
And so, we’re trying to make sure that we are still creating opportunities, and always at the end of the day, using as the guidepost the quality-of-life factor, because that’s the value proposition. Our job is to have the quality jobs that adds to the quality of life.
Do you work at all with other economic development organizations in the region?
The relationships that we have with our fellow economic developers and economic development organizations are very real. We all understand we belong to a region and we help each other, and we stand as a region when we’re trying to attract some unbelievable opportunities.
Low Commercial Office Rates
$27 per square foot
$22 per square foot
Last December it was announced that medical supply company Medline was moving forward with plans to develop a 650,000-square-foot distribution center in Tangipahoa Parish instead of St. Tammany due to opposition from residents and multiple lawsuits. The project is expected to result in 450 jobs when it opens in 2022 and 350 construction jobs before then. Did that hurt your relationship with Tangipahoa Economic Development?
We learned a lot from that. I don’t shy away from the issue of Medline. Yes, we didn’t want to lose Medline, it was an unfortunate situation, but we’ve learned a lot. We put some things in place. We have stronger relationships with our parish government now because of that. We have stronger relationships with our development community, and it gave us an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with our neighbors in Tangipahoa. We still have people who live in St. Tammany Parish that will work at Medline. We have people who live in Tangipahoa who work in St. Tammany Parish. We are a community of parishes, and we work very well together. I think that’s part of the future.
What excites you most about St. Tammany’s future?
Economic development is all about relationships, relevancy, and results. That has been a mantra of mine since the first day I started and it will be mine when I walk out of this place. We need to be constantly evolving and innovating and producing results, because the minute you stop producing results, then you’re no longer relevant. You do all of this through solid relationships, and we’re going to continue to do that. That’s what the future looks like for St. Tammany.
Don’t shy away from the issue of Medline. Yes, we didn’t want to lose Medline, it was an unfortunate situation, but we’ve learned a lot. We put some things in place. We have stronger relationships with our parish government now because of that.