Combine an entrepreneurial ethos, a skilled workforce with a bent toward lifelong learning, automation startups, Fortune 100 manufacturers, private businesses operating on an international scale, four colleges and an enlightened and connected regional leadership and you have the recipe for making good things happen.
And good things are exactly what are happening in Central Louisiana – for businesses and for residents.
“This region has reached a critical mass of companies, government leaders, individuals and nonprofits who want it to grow, change, and prosper,” said Jim Clinton, President and Chief Executive Officer of Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. “That is an environment we thrive in. Our job is to help identify the right steps to bring the maximum opportunity to the greatest part of the citizenry.”
This region, home to a National Geographic magazine Great Outdoors Town, is a region of makers. This is the place where good stuff is made: Tide™ pods and tank cars, two-by-fours and OSB sheets, electric substations and fishing lures, letterpress stationery and cypress armoires. The region’s most recent Inc. Magazine 1000 company is a maker who designs, fabricates and markets metal designs throughout the country. The coders at one of the region’s boutique software firms make the world’s most downloaded ticketing app.
In Central Louisiana, the residents work with their hands, hearts, intelligence and creativity. The region’s identity as makers is the thread that weaves through and binds the region. In fact, making good stuff is at the core of the region’s two economic clusters – manufacturing and forest products.
This innate desire to make things has led CLEDA to market the region with the tagline: We Make Good Stuff. The statement is readily proven true by the number of traditional manufacturers located there: Procter & Gamble, BASF, Jeld-Wen, Union Tank Car, Crest Industries, Hayes Manufacturing, Boise Cascade, RoyOMartin, Stella Jones, AFCO, Baker Manufacturing, Kerotest, Weyerhaeuser, Hunt Forest Products, Champion Homes, Drax Biomass, Syrah Resources, UPS Midstream, Eclectic Products and others. Yet, the tagline also applies to the creative economy of Central Louisiana. The people who make art, music, software, automation and exciting food and beer are building better lifestyle opportunities for everyone in the region.
“A lot of folks, when they think about Louisiana, think immediately of New Orleans,” says Larkin Simpson, Vice President of the Major Employers division at CLEDA. “Here, we have unique artists and companies making things that play to who we are as a state and as people.”
CLEDA’s mission is to help people prosper in vibrant, thriving communities within the ten-parish (county) region comprising the following parishes: Allen, Avoyelles, Catahoula, Concordia, Grant, LaSalle, Natchitoches, Rapides, Vernon, and Winn. While CLEDA focuses on traditional economic development functions and metrics, it also undertakes actions to increase entrepreneurship, creativity and productivity.
This interesting and unusual organization has been structured as a creative enterprise. It is certainly concerned with traditional economic development functions and metrics, yet also focuses on a variety of unique initiatives to increase entrepreneurship, creativity and productivity. In a diverse rural economy, CLEDA has to do more than convince people to relocate to Central Louisiana; it must instigate and encourage out-of-the-box thinking and entrepreneurial behavior to survive the national tendency of declining rural communities.
In many economic development circles, officials say if a community cannot survive, then it deserves to die, which is something to which CLEDA strenuously objects. “Wherever we can identify a critical mass of people within a community who want it to grow, change, and prosper, then that’s a signal to us there is hope for the community, and it becomes our job to help identify the right steps to bring the maximum opportunity to the greatest part of the citizenry,” says Jim.
There are three main branches of CLEDA: major employers, innovation and entrepreneurship, and education and training. The Major Employers’ division is the traditional economic development arm focused on recruitment and retention of business and industry in the area. CLEDA focuses on Regional Innovation through rural prosperity initiatives. As part of its entrepreneurship program, CLEDA has a program called Business Acceleration System to mentor local businesses and individuals to grow successfully and maximize their potential. Knowledge Platforms connects major employers and manufacturing businesses with educational institutions to increase educational skills attainment and enhance existing workforce capabilities.
Central Louisiana is a great location for business with plenty of access. It has two Class 1 railroads with Kansas City Southern Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad, and its international airport connects it to the rest of the world. It has interstate access throughout; I-49 connects north and south to I-10 and I-20, which are the main east and west corridors for the state. LA Hwy 28 is a four-lane divided, interstate standard roadway connecting Fort Polk (Vernon Parish, Louisiana) to the center of the state in Alexandria. Waterways are easily navigable through the Red River with ports at Natchitoches, Alexandria, and Avoyelles Parish. On the eastern side of the region, Concordia parish services companies along the Mississippi River from the Port of Natchez (MS). From an economic recruitment standpoint, Central Louisiana has all of the tools needed to attract national companies looking to make this a South or Southeastern hub for distribution and logistics.
Home-grown companies like Crest Industries, RoyOMartin, AFCO and others who manufacture and machine materials to be distributed worldwide are vital in different manufacturing sectors around the globe. “We have several companies throughout Vernon, Rapides, Natchitoches, Lasalle, Concordia, and Avoyelles Parishes who play an international role as well as domestic role to produce products and support the world’s economy,” says Larkin.
CLEDA has numerous workforce development initiatives to support local businesses. “Our economy cannot function at a higher level than the aggregate knowledge of our people will allow it to, so we invest a lot of time and resources to focus on the connections among education, business and people,” says Jim.
For the last several years, the organization has worked to have its ten-parish region become certified as ACT Work Ready Communities. The ACT Work Ready exam tells students for what jobs they qualify, where their skills would be most useful, and what kind of salary range to expect. It prepares people to go either directly into the job market or back to school to gain the qualifications to advance.
Philanthropic organization, The Rapides Foundation, helps improve the health and education in Central Louisiana. It pays for every high school student in the region to take the Work Ready exam twice while still in high school. The reason for taking the test twice is if a freshman or sophomore student does not like the result of the test, they will have a few years to acquire better skills to secure the job they desire after high school. This does not preclude students from going on to higher education, but it does significantly help those who want to work in manufacturing or would like to go technical college.
The technical community colleges in the region are completely connected to the ACT Work Ready process and help to test the adult market. “Working with ACT and with The Rapides Foundation, CLEDA led a process to get each of our ten parishes designated as Work Ready-certified communities,” says Jim.
CLEDA works with Louisiana Economic Development (LED) to offer specific employment training for industry needs. If there is a manufacturer who needs specific training not offered in the technical colleges, the community colleges, or the four-year universities, CLEDA will work directly with the company to create a program. For example, Stella-Jones produces railroad ties for all Class 1 railroads, and it has heavy-use forklifts the community college system is not set up to train on. CLEDA can work directly with the forklift company to set up a program to train for that specific need. It creates programs custom-made to the company and the industry using the education system and state resources. In addition to incentivized worker training programs, CLEDA also facilitates an Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program and a FAME Chapter of Manufacturers in partnership with Northwestern State University and Central Louisiana Technical Community College who support it.
The set of challenges CLEDA faces is similar to those of other rural regions. There is a tendency at the federal level and often state level to focus intensely on metropolitan regions and to dismiss rural areas since the population in larger centers is a more attractive target. About fifty years ago, the Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon told farmers to get big or get out. He implemented policies to give the advantage to industrial farms and made it difficult to farm outside the commodity program, resulting in fewer edible crops being grown across the nation.
CLEDA considers a decision like this to be a strategic mistake and has created entrepreneurship and rural innovation initiatives to help farmers do what they want with their lives and property and to operate on a smaller scale. CLEDA also helps with fresh food initiatives and provides training to small farmers in everything from crop management to food safety procedures. This has the benefit of serving the local farmers’ markets which contribute to putting fresher, more interesting, tasteful food on tables.
“Kids growing up in a rural environment need to be as empowered from an entrepreneurship standpoint as someone growing up in Silicon Valley,” says Jim. “The message is: you don’t have to work for the man. You can be the man, and here are the skills necessary to do it and the support systems necessary to do it.”
Central Louisiana provides excellent opportunities as a hunting and fishing destination and has been on Forbes list of the Best Outdoor Cities in America. However, the outdoor recreation sector is underdeveloped from a business position. The companies involved make a great living with high-end hunting and fishing lodges, yet there is room for much more. The region is full of walking, hiking, and biking trails, and there is plenty of access to lakes, streams, and waterways. Louisiana is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise; there is something to enjoy year-round that is not far from home or work.
Another reason the quality of life is high in Central Louisiana is its artistic support network. In Alexandria, where the population is only 50,000, there are two fully-functional black box theatres as well as a large performance hall. The River Oaks Square Arts Center is a place for artists to work, and it supports the emerging independent art and music movement happening in downtown Alexandria. Also located in Alexandria is a professionally managed symphony orchestra.
Central Louisiana is an ideal place to live and work and also to raise a family. With investments made by The Rapides Foundation, the public school systems are improving at a rate significantly faster than other parishes in the state. The presence of the many higher education resources here offers boundless opportunities to advance more rapidly than other small regions. There is also an extremely strong medical community in the area with a couple of large hospitals in addition to surgical centers.
“While we are only the size we are, we play above our weight in resources. Alexandria is a small enough place you can travel anywhere you want to go from anywhere else in ten minutes, but all those resources are here nonetheless,” says Jim.