St. Landry Parish, Louisiana has a population of approximately eighty-five thousand. The parish was created in 1807, and its parish seat is the city of Opelousas. It is a large parish at one thousand square miles, and it has twelve incorporated communities.
St. Landry Parish has ten formal boards and committees under one large umbrella called SLED (St. Landry Economic Development). It also plays a heavy role in a regional economic development capacity around Acadiana and works hard to develop a broader picture beyond the parish.
Within St. Landry, the principal role of the economic development organization is to provide the vision, the strategies and the management of that eclectic mix of board and committee structures in St. Landry Parish. There are many moving pieces to be organized and directed for optimal economic development.
According to SLED Executive Director Bill Rodier, “while there is huge untapped opportunity, there is a lot of work to be done, because that is why things are still untapped. We have to continue to bring different people together, build capacity through collaboration in order to really move needles on strategies.”
St. Landry Parish has more incorporated communities than any other place in Louisiana. Much of the economic development work deals with community-development-related issues, which involves helping communities understand and prepare for growth. Some economic development organizations like St. Landry’s are heavily engaged in this, but many others consider it less important than business or housing development. In St. Landry, maintaining the slower-paced, close community feel is a priority when it comes to expanding.
Culture and tourism
The inimitable French-flavored culture in Louisiana comes predominantly from its French, Acadian (Cajun), and Creole history. During its long history this blend has brought together different races and cultural influences that come together in St. Landry in a unique and eclectic mix.
“It’s hard to get your head around what the Louisiana French culture is and what the term Cajun actually means if you’re from the outside, but if you live here, you’d know,” says Bill. “It’s not easy to quantify, but it’s the uniqueness of the people. There’s a strong tie to family, an openness and willingness to help people and really hardworking, problem-solving, entrepreneurial type of people.
“The parish is equally influenced by a Creole culture, largely brought here in the early 1800s by French-speaking people of color from the sugar islands of the Caribbean. The combination of these and other French influences can be seen most easily in our music and cuisine, but they extend throughout the culture.”
Unfortunately, people in other parts of the world might not know much about the Louisiana French culture, other than a few stereotypes about spicy flavors. The economic development organization is working on a regional branding campaign to address the lack of awareness.
Tourists are drawn to St. Landry Parish. The Cajun culture and its French component create a unique atmosphere that visitors seek. St. Landry has a formal placemaking task force that continues to develop to generate more activity in this area.
The parish has French immersion programs that bring university students here from all over the country. There are areas in St. Landry where tourists can immerse themselves in a different language for a week at a time, without speaking any English. Bill describes it further. “There is an authenticity to the people that I don’t really know how to explain. I’ve traveled to a lot of places in the world and around the country, and it’s the people themselves that create the curiosity that drives our tourism.”
A diverse economy
While the tourism sector is strong in St. Landry Parish, some of its largest employers are in the industrial market, and its primary industries are transportation and distribution. The largest employer in that sector is the 1.2-million-square foot Walmart distribution center, which employs around eleven hundred people including its trucking operation. There are number of smaller transportation and distribution companies as well. The parish sits in an excellent position for this industry because it is divided by two four-lane highways like a cross, and the industry will continue to grow.
There is also strong food and beverage production in the parish. Tony Chachere’s seasonings are created here and marketed throughout the country and internationally as a broad-scope Cajun seasoning brand. It makes sense that food production is so popular in St. Landry, since food is such an important part of the St. Landry culture. There are also many other small businesses in the area that are very well known and have had a lot of success.
Healthcare is an important component of the St. Landry Parish. Its primary health system has about twelve hundred and fifty employees, and it also has several secondary healthcare systems including rural health support and other urban health systems. Supporting rural health needs from the core of the parish is going to be a growing industry over time.
Economic diversity in itself is another priority of the economic development organization, especially because of the history in the area. Acadiana had close to seventy percent of its regional economy directly dependent on the oil and gas industry. In the 1980s, during the crash of the oil market, it was deeply affected. It is important to diversify because the oil and gas industry is cyclical, and communities should not be at the mercy of its ups and downs.
The region is still currently about thirty-eight percent dependent on oil and gas jobs, but it is much more diverse today and continues to learn crucial lessons in development as it grows. St. Landry learned from history and diversified its economy, and many of its employers are actually thriving because of the workforce availability made possible by the downturn in the oil and gas industry. The labor pool has increased dramatically in the area.
“Most of what we do as an organization is show people what change can look like,” Bill explains. In the last couple of years, the economic development team sat down with the leaders of different sectors of the parish to discuss what is going to have the greatest impact over the next two to fifteen years. The conclusion was that the development agency needed to focus on three primary strategies: improving education, aggressively developing the I-49 corridor that splits the parish into north and south and the redevelopment of the downtown areas, “with the understanding and the agreement that downtowns are typically a good thermometer for the pulse of a parish or a single community.”
Emphasis on education
In its efforts to improve education for area students, the parish brought in a new superintendent for St. Landry Parish schools in November of 2016. He received a huge level of support from the community, and this is especially significant because, in the history of St. Landry, it has never hired a school superintendent who was not from the area.
The parish continues to make progress in its education system, and it is actively working with the school system to engage everyone from business executives to clergy in the hopes of educating parents on the importance of their involvement with their child’s education. Even for the business executive who may not have any children in the public school system, education is still an important part of the community because of the crime rate, the poverty levels and other aspects of society that are affected by education.
“Over time, there is no more true systemic way to address a lot of those issues that we have other than improving our education system, so we have really put a big focus on that,” says Bill.
There are also two colleges. One of them is consistently leading the state of Louisiana in enrollment and increasing the number of programs.
The successes of St. Landry Parish are due to the group of leaders who came together with public and private sector entities to do something about the many underutilized resources. The people in the area are aware that the parish deserves more recognition than it receives and are willing to do the hard work necessary.
Residents have been able to come together and realize that progress is not about individual needs it is about working together for long-term goals. Establishing a community feel makes people want to put more personal time and effort into their hometown. Everyone wants to feel proud of where they are from. St. Landry has done that.