Recently, Business in Focus spoke with Chief Executive Officer Brenda Bertus and Development Director Ashley Cangelosi Llewellyn of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation (STEDF) to learn more about this rapidly growing, diverse, and business-friendly parish and how its focus on people and place has created a community that is ripe for business opportunity.
Located close to New Orleans, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, St. Tammany offers wide-ranging opportunities for both businesses and people. As one of the fastest-growing parishes in the state, St. Tammany is attractive to businesses because of its prime location – three interstates and a rail line pass through the parish – as well as its top-rated school system and high-quality healthcare facilities. St. Tammany is also home to a vibrant art and cultural scene in addition to its natural beauty.
STEDF was founded over thirty-five years ago by business leaders from the parish. “Thirty-five years ago, each town had a chamber of commerce, and the business leaders realized that when companies had economic development questions, there wasn’t one central source, and so that is why they developed the STEDF,” says Bertus.
The vision for the group was for the parish to be nationally recognized as a premier place to live and do business in Louisiana. STEDF works to improve the quality of life of the parish by strengthening and supporting both existing businesses and those that may wish to relocate to St. Tammany. Having two NASA facilities on the borders of the parish/county has also helped to establish and distinguish St. Tammany from other parishes.
“In the early sixties, we had all the highly educated people [from NASA] coming in by the thousands to this location. They got very involved with the schools system, and this is why, to this day, we have a superior public school system,” says Bertus. She also observes that the natural beauty and diversity of St. Tammany have caused many retirees from the NASA facilities to remain in St. Tammany. “The majority of them have chosen to stay here, and that speaks to our quality of life.”
The organization itself has been astoundingly successful in achieving its economic development aims. Named the number three economic development agency in Louisiana by Southern Business & Development magazine, STEDF has brought nearly a billion dollars in investment to the area over the past ten years.
It began with a staff of one but now employs seven. Its staff are uniquely qualified to assist development in the parish, with two staff members being state certified in economic development and another two with a master’s degree in that subject. The expansion of the STEDF under Bertus’s leadership led to a change in location to accommodate the organization’s growth, as it moved to a larger location in the centre of the parish.
The parish itself is also thriving. In 2016, St. Tammany saw almost twenty percent more new business incorporations than in 2015, and the number of residential building permits issued increased by more than fourteen percent. Bertus suggests that St. Tammany’s success in attracting new business stems in part from its focus on maintaining readily available, certified sites.
In 2016, STEDF added three certified sites, bringing its total available certified sites to nine, containing over eight hundred acres and more than a dozen campus-style business parks. Bertus explains that all of the parish’s certified sites have gone through the rigorous Louisiana Economic Development process to ensure that they are shovel ready for any business seeking to be established in St. Tammany. “Time is money, so businesses want to look at sites where they can start pulling the permits and start building quickly.”
STEDF has focused on two key areas to make St. Tammany competitive when it comes to attracting and keeping businesses in the parish: diversification and workforce development. Since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, STEDF has worked hard to diversify the businesses that are within its community.
“Our target industries focus on advanced manufacturing, distribution and logistics, energy, oil and gas, information technology, and healthcare and biosciences. In there, you have some of those traditional, Louisiana legacies – manufacturing, distribution, and oil and gas. But we’ve really been able to work on diversifying the types of companies we have here, as well as our companies working on diversifying the services and products that they create and have within their wheelhouses. We’ve definitely seen that in terms of distribution and logistics, energy, oil and gas, IT, and healthcare and biosciences,” says Llewellyn.
The information technology sector, in particular, seems to be driving innovation in all the other sectors that STEDF has seen developing. “Information technology, although some people define it as a sector, we know that it is more of a compilation of core competencies that really supersede and affect all of our industry partners as they are going through a tech transformation. That is a big piece of our diversification [focus] that we are seeing a lot of companies moving to automation practices within their industry. They are introducing new ways of assessing their processes internally, as well as their customer service models. We are seeing a lot of that diversification here, which provides really good opportunities for our companies to grow and expand, to innovate and create, within their existing facilities and using their existing workforce,” says Llewellyn.
STEDF’s second key area of focus is workforce development. In fact, Louisiana Economic Development’s FastStart was deemed the nation’s best state workforce training program, according to Business Facilities magazine. The parish of St. Tammany very clearly demonstrates the benefits of this emphasis in its workforce statistics and educational institutions, having a civilian workforce of over 125,000 as part of a larger parish population of 250,000 and boasting a nationally-recognized primary and secondary education system and world-renowned professional and technical schools. Llewellyn notes that the STEDF is working hard to harness these resources and maximize the economic development opportunities that they provide through a workforce development initiative that was initiated in 2014.
“[We are] helping to facilitate pathways within our education system and into our workforce. In 2014, we launched our workforce development series,” adds Llewellyn. “We are entering into our fourth year of events. These are facilitated roundtable conversations with business and industry partners, education partners, government partners and state agencies, coming to the table to discuss the challenges in our community when it comes to the workforce. What are the opportunities, what are the gaps? And how can we work together to develop a solution to maximize the opportunities for our existing workforce and our future workforce, right here in our community.”
Llewellyn, a long-time resident of St. Tammany, notes the importance of these types of partnerships in enabling and retaining local talent through education initiatives targeted to create a skilled and educated workforce for the parish. “I was born and raised in this area, so coming back after schooling and other jobs, has been a really unique adventure. Looking at what do we do very distinctly here – that is really our connection to culture, our connection to community, as well as commerce.
“We are really able to facilitate the growth of our internal talent as well as recruiting new talent to the area. One of the distinct partnerships we have is with Northshore Technical Community College. They are some of the most distinctly creative and innovative educators that I have ever had the pleasure to work with. They have an incredibly strong relationship with our K-12 partners, they understand the value of university partnerships, and they’ve worked creatively to make sure that this is a student-centered pipeline to success.
“How do we get the student where they want to go efficiently? This includes dual enrollment, getting industry credentials and certifications while students are still in high school, mobilizing an adult education program focused on advancing those who are already in our workforce who may not have completed high school or a baccalaureate degree. Getting them plugged into the workforce means making sure they get the education and training they need to be successful so they can go right to work in our community.”
The organization credits the success of St. Tammany and its distinctiveness as a business-friendly parish to an unwavering focus on ensuring businesses’ rapid access to appropriate sites and a highly skilled workforce. “For us, it is a focus on people and place.” says Llewellyn. “We know our land has to be ready for development. That really sets us apart. [Businesses] know that when they look at St. Tammany, there are options, whether that be a greenfield site where they are able to quickly build a facility of their own design or looking at our existing facilities and spaces to be able to move in quickly, to lease or to buy that space, to establish their business.”
As Bertus says, “We know that time is money and that speed to market opportunity for us, in terms of land and site development, is absolutely critical. When it comes to people, it’s about the workforce. We know that we must invest in the people. How do we put [our] people first and provide them with the opportunities they need to secure the types of quality careers that they want and having that happen right here at home.”
Quality of life is also a big selling point for St. Tammany. The area’s proximity to New Orleans, its natural beauty and its cultural and gastronomic offerings make settling in the area, for both individuals and businesses, a very attractive prospect.
“We are located on three interstate systems, and a fourth is very close to us,” says Bertus. “We are just on the north side of a lake from metro New Orleans, very close to Baton Rouge, very close to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. That’s why we have so many of the corporate head offices that we have here because they really enjoy living here; the CEOs want to be here. We have a great public school system, as well as having more than ten universities within less than an hour’s drive away.”
“It’s a great location. Whether you like to fish, live in a condo, live in a beautiful home, live on the water, there’s so many opportunities. We even have ‘horse country’ here. North of the parish, they train horses, and it looks much like Kentucky. It’s a very diverse location. Once we get you here, you really want to stay here,” says Bertus.
St. Tammany has also seen explosive growth in the number of craft breweries and world-class restaurants. “We have a lot of chefs that train with top chefs in New Orleans and then open restaurants here. We have some of the top chefs in the nation that have restaurants here. There are always events – too many to attend each weekend – and many of them are free, whether it is music or food [focused], whatever your taste may be.”
Llewellyn observes that another strength of St. Tammany is that the area is always evolving and seeking new opportunities to serve the businesses and people in the parish in the future. “This is always a work in process; we are a living, breathing, changing, evolving community. So are our land and sites, and so are our people. We know that [our programs] have to be constantly evolving and constantly changing.”
“Economic development doesn’t happen in a silo; it’s really partnerships – that’s our specialty,” says Bertus.