New Orleans was “Gateway to the Americas” before being surpassed by other Sun Belt cities

NEW ORLEANS – On Wednesday, Louisiana’s Senate trade task force hosted two Louisiana State University economists for their second public meeting and debated how to promote international trade from the state level. With only four monthly meetings left before dissolution and an eye for next year’s legislative session, time is limited. However, the task force’s sponsor, Senator Conrad Appel (R – 9th District), expressed confidence that “everyone involved is enthusiastic,” as he described the committee’s goals.

The Louisiana Senate passed the 2010 resolution that set in motion “a unified initiative for economic development based upon global trade,” with the goal of “wealth creation” for the people and businesses of Louisiana.

“The people of Louisiana have lagged in the growth of their personal and business wealth for a very long time.” That is “the fundamental thrust of this,” says Appel, and the “wonderful economic engine called global trade… to a lot of people’s minds, has been ignored by state government.”

The state already has the “single largest port complex in the Western Hemisphere, but we don’t do anything with it… There’s no continuity amongst the different players.” And that is in spite of a “very favorable opinion of ports” among constituents.

“Thirty years ago,” he recalls, “New Orleans was called the Gateway to the Americas… We were the air hub between Central America and South America and the United States.” But such flights have not been in operation for a long time, “because we lost corporate jobs… to Houston and Miami… New Orleans lost its corporate lifeblood.”

Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economical development agency, has its vice-chairman, Greg Rusovich, on the task force. He too believes the situation is begging for a response.

“For decades now, we have languished by not focusing on our international trade component, because the state did not put in adequate resources in comparison to other states, and we have not had a unified vision. Here one out of eight jobs are connected to [the maritime industry], in the state of Louisiana, and we’ve been losing badly – to Houston, to Miami – even to Mobile, Gulfport, and Savannah… This is not acceptable… International trade must be one of our principle focuses.”

Appel believes “there was never a recognition by the people of Louisiana that trade is more than just ports,” which in large part accounts for the stagnation. “Our competitors possess fully integrated international trade complexes. We, on the other hand, appear to possess pass-through ports, with very little integration.”

The presence of long-term corruption in Louisiana’s ports may be another reason for Louisiana’s relative decline. Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Louisiana native, believes “it’s a problem Louisiana has with everything.” He notes an acquaintance in trade logistics who for that reason has avoided the region. He believes most reforms will have limited value unless that underlying problem is resolved.

The seventeen unpaid committee members also include representatives from ports and trade lobbies, along with those of the governor, relevant state departments, and other senate committees. They face the challenge of creating a mechanism to identify and resolve problems related to international trade on an ongoing basis. According to Appel, “that would be the best result we could get in the time that we have.”

Appel wants to be clear, though, “The goal of this taskforce is not to produce a study; I’ve got 200 hundred studies… The state has probably spent millions on those studies, and they all pretty much say the same thing… The goal will be specific legislative or administrative action.” Rusovich concurs, “It is not acceptable that we come out with yet just another study.”

While the results are yet to be in, recommendations for the removal of past legislation and the elimination of or merging of government departments are likely prospects.

“Absolutely,” says Appel. “That’s probably the direction I think we’re going to end up with. Right now it’s bifurcated at the top. One of the recommendations that has been in all those studies was to merge [economic leadership] back together.”

Rusovich, on the other hand, wants to see “a true vision and focus on international trade in the state of Louisiana – someone at the state level to be the promoter, supporter, and advocate in an appropriate governing structure… And we need to put the proper resources into international trade… All the other competitors have been putting far more money into their ports than we have. It’s an outrage, the limited amount of money we put into our ports… Through the Global Trade Task Force, we now have the opportunity to regain focus on this asset.”

Both men believe the task force is off to a “very good start,” but they want to be sure of an impact, which will in large part be determined by the support of the legislature and Governor Jindal. Come next legislative session they hope to have built enough support for their goals that these necessary parties will be eager to adopt the committee’s recommendations.

Click here to listen to a 40 minute interview with Senator Conrad Appel, sponsor of the Senate Task Force on Global Trade-Based Economic Development Strategies.
[audio:] Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at, and one can follow him on twitter.