As Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack prepared to deliver his opening remarks at this morning’s Leadership Power Breakfast, he glanced at his fellow panel speakers, economist Loren Scott and Baton Rouge Area Foundation Executive Vice President John Spain.
“I’m the bad cop, he’s Mr. Reality,” Waguespack said, pointing to Scott, and then turning to Spain, added, “and he’s the good cop.”
Waguespack was referring, of course, to the glum news about the upcoming special session—during which lawmakers will work to fill a $750 million gap in the current fiscal year budget and a $1.9 billion hole in the next fiscal year—that most of the roughly 450 professionals in attendance at this morning’s event, presented by Business Report, expected him to discuss.
Indeed, Waguespack didn’t have a whole lot of positive things to say about the fiscal state Louisiana has found itself in. Calling the state’s economy “fragile,” Waguespack said the continued petrochemical and construction boom in south Louisiana is “masking some of the true challenges we face in our state.”
The silver lining to the “crisis” Louisiana is in, Waguespack said, is it provides the state’s leaders a chance to make much-needed changes to the tax code and state budget that could end the annual tradition of fighting to plug budget holes. For too long, he said, Louisiana has focused on figuring out “how much money is needed to keep business as usual.”
“It’s time for Louisiana to use this opportunity to do something differently; to scrutinize every dollar,” Waguespack said, who concluded his address by urging those in attendance to become involved in the political process. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and we shouldn’t waste this one.”
While Scott said the ever-dwindling price of oil “is hammering” the state’s economy, he was quick to say it is “nothing like the ’80s” and also pointed to the silver linings at this morning’s Leadership Power Breakfast. While the economies of seven of Louisiana’s nine metro areas are either flat or in decline, Scott said, the Lake Charles and Baton Rouge areas are continuing to grow thanks to the petrochemical and construction activity.
Scott acknowledged that some of the $145.4 billion in industrial projects announced in the state in recent years will not come to fruition. Of those, only about $62.3 billion worth of projects are under construction. However, he noted, in the Baton Rouge area there are $8.1 billion worth of projects underway, while just $155 million of previously announced projects have yet to get out of the planning and permitting phase.
“So we have very little risk,” Scott said of prospect of canceled projects adversely affecting Baton Rouge’s economy.
Spain more than lived up to Waguespack’s description as “the good cop” on the panel, delivering updates on a number of projects spearheaded by BRAF that are poised to transform Baton Rouge in the coming years.
Among them, Spain discussed Ardendale, the Baton Rouge Health District, LSU lakes restoration project, the former Entergy site in Mid City, the streetcar between LSU and downtown, and The Water Campus. He also said BRAF will release two significant reports next month. The first will come on Feb. 22, when the foundation will unveil a report on mental health needs in the community. Shortly after, he said, a report on autism and other disorders on the spectrum will be published, outlining the community’s needs to address the problem.
As for other milestones BRAF is looking forward to this year, Spain said the $25 million auto technology training center at Ardendale will open in July; a study on the development options for the former Entergy site in Mid City will be released in March; an executive director of the Baton Rouge Health District will be hired soon.
The LSU lakes restoration project will go out to bid in about a year, Spain said, and BRAF hopes to help establish a bike sharing program in Baton Rouge in “the later part of 2016.” And by the end of this year, he said, five buildings will be under construction at The Water Campus, including two restaurants along River Road. Total build-out of the campus will take five to 10 years, he said.
As for a proposed passenger rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Spain expressed optimism the project is picking up speed and said “you could ride a passenger train in less than four years if everything is done right.”