Hurricane Laura has left in its wake a big unknown, but from it may flow an opportunity whose time has come.
We do not know yet the extent of damage to the Port of Lake Charles and hopefully like the Port of New Orleans after Katrina, there will be only a minor disruption. But the lesson we should take from this disaster is not the damage, but the importance of the Port as an economic engine.
We are blessed with assets that few other southern states have. We have two of the most important international port complexes in the world, the Port in Lake Charles, and the massive port complex along the Mississippi River. These complexes, taken together with our geographical location, represent not only our historic reason to be here in the first place, but also an amazing potential for unbridled economic growth.
As I have written many times, our state continues to ignore the untapped potential of so many of our assets, but the value of the ports and the products that flow through them as growth engines. They offer the opportunity to attract back the vast numbers of distribution, value added manufacturing, and white-collar corporations that once graced our state. And these businesses offer poverty cycle- busting, middle-class jobs.
If we ever have state leadership that brings with it a vision of economic prosperity, then international trade and ocean and inland transportation must become a major element of an overall plan to cast Louisiana as a pro-growth state. So, perhaps the publicity of the damage, both physical and economic, caused by Laura will highlight the potential value of these assets and trigger in citizens the questions that must be asked, why good jobs elsewhere, why not here?
For over a century, management and strategy of our ports has been relegated to six politically appointed boards. I know how it works; I was Chairman of the Board of the Port of New Orleans. These boards generally have done a good job in their operations, but there is always a better way to approach a challenge. That challenge is how to use ports to foster growth, but due to the parochial, even protectionist, attitude of multiple boards we have been unable to create cohesive state-based strategy.
Many of us have wondered if consolidation or confederation under state management of these boards would allow for far better strategic planning, cost control, acquisition of capital, and so forth. I am not writing this to propose any model of governance or even to make a definitive statement there is a better way. I am writing this to point out that we own these incredible assets, and though they serve to create many jobs, I am convinced that they could create exponentially more. If the issue of multiple boards is determined to be an obstacle to growth, then we must address that. If that is not the problem, then we must identify what is and fix it.
In a perfect world, as an element of long-term strategy, our state would use our port assets to, as noted, re-attract distribution, manufacturing, and corporate business activities, activities that we were once known worldwide for. It would be helpful if our media would ask the right questions, such as why don’t we have an integrated strategy and why are investing so little in our basic economic assets. Then perhaps our people would understand what we are missing and demand action.
I have been blessed to have seen our ports with all the integrated businesses activities when they were at their peak of performance. Now, though fundamentally they are doing well, ports are in a reactionary posture, they react to world events, there is no pro-active strategy for the state. The result is they are performing far below the potential of the integrated economic engine that they once were.
My personal history causes me to pause and ask myself what happened, why have we allowed things to slip away from us? Why have we not made any effort to evaluate the lost opportunities that we have experienced? I suppose that compared to a short-term, high-profile impact of an event such as Laura, we just did not pay attention to the incremental loss of businesses and jobs. Unlike a storm, our decline happened almost imperceptably. One day we may finally awaken to the fact that major elements of our great economic engine are gone, and we let them go.
Perhaps I am naïve. Perhaps Louisiana will always be happy with leadership that has no vision and does not challenge our people to excel. Perhaps Louisianians will just be content, even as they apparently have been, with being saddled with pitiful societal outcomes.
But this much I do know, we have in our ports the gateway to the world’s economy and no one can take that away from us. If we choose to use those assets to our advantage, given time, we will no longer be last in every measure of a state’s success. If we choose not to, well, let us just hope we finally find leadership that can grasp the value of the goose that lays golden eggs!