Gregg Gothreaux, President and CEO of Lafayette Economic Development Authority, joined host, Jan Swift, to discuss the economic impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown. LEDA is a full-service, tax-funded government entity dedicated to helping the business community of Lafayette Parish.
This pandemic crisis has affected not only our nation’s physical health but its economic health. Gothreaux stressed that it has also brought to the forefront issues that we need to address as our country moves forward to ensure future prosperity and provide the wherewithal to withstand the inevitable, yet unforeseeable challenges which may once again shake our economy.
LEDA’s program of work involves long term economic development strategy, and the focus is on attracting new business to our community while sustaining business conditions for existing enterprises, both large and small, who are the backbone of our economy. The talented staff works to help businesses grow, find the right employees, find tax incentives, and tax breaks that exist and should be utilized.
Lafayette’s forefathers did much to diversity our local economy and Gothreaux gives them much credit in forging the path for our area’s creative business entrepreneurs.
In LEDA’s early days in the 1970s (when it was known as the “Lafayette Harbor, Terminal and Industrial Development District”), one of its first actions was to create a business park in Broussard known as “Southpark Industrial Park.” This organized investment of business space provided Lafayette Parish with the ability to compete effectively with other regions of the country and be able to offer a desirable and business-ready locale for businesses from around the country to locate in Acadiana.
Gothreaux recounted that one of the first businesses locating in SouthPark was International Paper which made corrugated boxes; the company is still there today in 2020 but operating under a different name. Countless other thriving businesses are operating in LEDA’s Industrial Parks throughout the parish and include BlueBell, AT&T, Cintas, Home Furniture Distribution, and many, many others. For an overview of all of Lafayette Parish’s business parks, visit LEDA’s website here.
Today’s office buildings are our “industrial parks,” according to Gothreaux. LEDA and its protege, the Opportunity Machine, work to fill office buildings and warehouses across our community by helping businesses thrive. There is no more need to build industrial parks as the current push is to fill existing office space. An example shared was the repurposing of the former Mid-South Bank Building on Versailles Blvd. near downtown by CGI. As the economy diversifies and continues to attract IT and medical-related companies, existing office space can readily accommodate needs and supply sufficient space for new companies.
SchoolMint is Lafayette’s most recent success story, illustrating our region’s ability to attract software firms from the West Coast who are looking for a more appropriate place to locate headquarters. Offering 178 new positions at an average salary of $75,000, SchoolMint is relocating to Lafayette from San Francisco. One of the key players in this story was Casey Bienvenu, a Carencro and UL-Lafayette grad, who is the company’s chief software architect and the force who developed the original software utilized by SchoolMint. The company is taking the country by storm with its unique way of pairing students and educational institutions with strategic enrollment platforms.
This move by SchoolMint is unusual on its face, as most companies moving out of California tend to relocate to other Western U. S. states; in this case, existing relationships with Lafayette Parish natives paved the way for a highly successful and growing firm to select our community as its new headquarters. Gothreaux projects that we will have the opportunity to welcome many other new businesses as we offer not only a superb quality of life but the unparalleled high-speed internet services of LUS Fiber.
Gothreaux shared that LEDA has always worked to diversify its economy with the oil and gas sector, not away from this sector. The oil and gas sector is filed with many of the most creative, ingenious business people around. It can be hard to match the high wages traditionally found in the energy sector, yet many have successfully adapted and found employment in other industries.
Medical, information technology, and entertainment sectors have grown over the past few decades, yet with the COVID-19 pandemic, many are struggling. But not all: companies such as CGI have made a commitment to add up to 400 more employees; LHC has added 500 additional medical workers, Viamed has hired 220 new medical workers, and as mentioned above, SchoolMint is bringing 178 new and high-paying IT positions to the region. This diversification allows our community to better weather the storm of COVID and the related economic downturn.
The first quarter of 2020 was the worst quarter in the history of our region in terms of the Economic Performance Index. With 16,000 indicators, the EPI is a true indicator of where the economy stands. Second-quarter 2020 numbers were inflated as the $600 per week unemployment benefits pumped trillions of dollars into the decimated economy and skewed all predictions of how businesses would fare with the COVID shutdown. Gothreaux predicts that September 2020 should give a more accurate reflection of the economy’s condition; however, if unemployment dollars continue, numbers could still be artificially inflated.
Policy changes to bring back the focus on manufacturing jobs in the U. S is tops on Gothreaux’s wishlist. Many of our inventions are engineered, developed and assembled in the U. S, but manufactured outside of our borders.
While technology is the ‘new manufacturing,’ the U. S. has become highly dependent upon foreign nations such as China to provide us with our vaccines, PPE, and other goods. Gothreaux states that while U. S. industries engineer, develop and assemble goods, we’ve given away our ideas by letting other countries manufacture our commodities. As an example, no air compressors are currently being manufactured in the U. S. 90% of our drugs and PPE are being manufactured outside of the country. He believes we must focus on being energy independent, technology-independent, and “R & D” (research and development) independent and brings factories back to revitalize manufacturing capabilities in the U. S.
The pandemic has resulted in a national trend in people working remotely thus reducing the need for commercial office space. As a result, it may be much tougher to generate demand for these spaces as work habits shift, leading to a devaluation in value, which has already begun to occur. While the residential real estate market is doing well, only time will tell how the commercial sector will fare. Gothreaux reiterated that factories will always need lots of space, and the U. S. would be well-advised to focus on production of commodities, utilize existing buildings, and regain control of our country’s destiny as we move forward from COVID.
LEDA has been actively responding to the COVID crisis by helping businesses ferret out the best ways to apply for business recovery grants and discover the panorama of government-led opportunities available to survive the pandemic setback. Since March 2020, it has shared 181 social media and website posts which have reached over 600,000 people in sharing this data, helped 781 Safe Shop businesses identify their locales, conducted 47 interviews and presentations to share data through webinars and online resources, and helped many businesses navigate the recovery program grants. Over 90,000 masks have been distributed to 900 businesses throughout Lafayette Parish’s municipalities.
The 2020 Job Fair was conducted remotely with great success. Fifty employers and 421 job seekers held several interviews, with better paying positions generating the most interest. LEDA has also held veterans and medical specialty job fairs; SchoolMint has a job fair coming up. From March 2017 to March 2020, 24,000 people visited LEDA’s “Virtual Job Fair Site” where employers post job openings and people may apply online.
Persons looking for assistance and guidance may dial 311 and select Option “2” when wanting to reach LEDA staff to access its services. LEDA has fielded over 2200 such calls in the past few months of the COVID shutdown, and its staff has worked tirelessly to decipher aid programs as they become available, help locals figure out how to fill out forms, and disseminate information accurately as the federal and state government rolls out its COVID-19 aid packages.
In response to economic hardships experienced by small businesses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) and Lafayette Economic Development Authority (LEDA) have launched the Lafayette Business Recovery Program to stabilize local businesses and retain/create jobs. Visit https://lafayette.org/covid for all information available for business owners and employees looking for guidance and grant opportunities.
Businesses may apply for a forgivable loan or grant of up to $10,000 to assist with up to three months of unpaid costs associated with qualifying business expenses incurred not prior to March 27, 2020—including but not limited to rent, payroll, insurance, benefits, and utilities.
Gothreaux shared that Louisiana’s tax base is unstable due to its reliance on personal income taxes and sales taxes. States such as Texas and Florida don’t feel the downturn to the extent we do as they rely upon property taxes for stable funding. Property values don’t change dramatically from year to year and their economies are more stable over time. Gothreaux says that getting rid of Louisiana’s personal income tax would be an important tool for policymakers to consider as a way to retain and attract high-income residents; high earners view payment of property taxes as minuscule in comparison to paying high personal income taxes. It is very easy to make the decision to pull up roots and relocate to Texas or Florida when assessing tax burdens.
For more information on the many ways LEDA offers assistance, call 311 and press 2 or (337) 769-4090, Monday to Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
We thank Gregg Gothreaux for his service to our community and his dedication to ensuring that businesses and employees receive the assistance they need!