There is one thing that we are truly good at, here, in South Louisiana: we can conjure some of the brightest ideas ever. Now, when it comes to their execution--well, that is usually a different story. It's usually a hit-or-miss affair. Such will likely be the case for the latest idea to cross the path of leaders in New Orleans.
This week, public policy experts from the RAND Corporation and recovery officials presented an ambitious economic development plan to the city council. In it, they called for the creation of yet another economic development body, dedicated to spearheading growth and commerce; however, what makes this new agency different from agencies of the past is the notion that this one is intended to marry the efforts of the entire metro region. That's right: a multi-parish, economic development authority...Um, hold on for a moment while I catch my breath...
I have to pause here to extend a true gesture of appreciation to the reps from the RAND think-tank and to Mr. Blakely's recovery group. Indeed, for the first time in as long as I can remember, some elements of the city's government have contended that they cannot go it alone. They have recognized that, in order to truly revitalize the wounded metropolis, the whole metropolis needs to be engaged, and not separated by imaginery parish lines, lakes, canals, or streets. Accepting such an idea could not have been popular in New Orleans, where leaders will certainly resist ceding some control, but at least this group of officials had the courage to even proffer it.
Let's take score for a second: when we are talking about the metro region, you should understand that we are referring to the parishes of Orleans (obviously), Jefferson, St. Tammany, Plaquemines (probably through Venice, because of the river), and even badly-debilitated St. Bernard. Since the tragedies of 2005, each of these parishes have been recovering at their own pace. Jefferson and St. Tammany have been the strongest with solid job growth and a population spike, respectively. Meanwhile, St. Bernard and the lower part of Plaquemines are still riddled with debris, badly crippled infrastructures, and FEMA trailers; their resurgence is less certain. And somewhere in the midst of all of that, there's Orleans Parish, with only 60-plus percent of its pre-K population, a terrible crime rate, spotty success stories about neighborhood recoveries (i.e., Broadmoor) and business growth (i.e., SDT Waste and the sports teams), and a largely absent mayor with a questionable government. To be sure, the governor's office in Baton Rouge has said that it would rally an impressive recovery, but that promise proved to be too much for the schoolteacher. And so, the metro region is where it is, recovering in a manner that highlights issues like affluence (not just race).
Now, before anyone gets rowdy here, let me clarify what I am saying. It is my firm belief that, without galvanizing leadership from the state or federal levels, the metro region has had to fend for itself. Sure, recovery dollars have flowed into the state, but because of mismanagement or some other uncertainty, those dollars have not proven to be enough. And so, in areas of greater affluence, like Mandeville or Metairie, where people have been largely a self-reliant lot, the recovery has been focused, steady, and independent. That is not so for places like Poydras or the Lower Ninth, where resources have been scant and a reliance on some mangled authority had been necessary. (Of course, I am not ignoring geography here. Some people will simply never return, because of the vulnerability of their neighborhoods, but that, too, plays heavily into the leadership issue, particularly when those leaders no longer have the necessary tax bases to afford such protections, be it levees or police.)
Anyway, the point: three years on--and the recovery of the entire metropolis is unbalanced and without significant direction.
What the RAND representatives, as well as the city's outsider-turn-recovery-czar, seemed to be recommending was a push for unison. They fully recognized that New Orleans is reliant on its bedroom communities--hell, even its airport sits in another parish--and for that matter, those same communities, though functional on their own, would be well-served to have a prosperous New Orleans at the epicenter. Hence, the solution was to engage all parties as stakeholders and to work for the betterment of the entire metropolis.
Sadly, though, the council was not too impressed. One councilwoman even argued that, while regionalism is good in concept, New Orleans was "too weak" to enter into such partnerships. Two other councilwomen agreed, and so, for now, it appears that even this plan, like so many others, will die upon proposal.
I guess I have made my case, but I feel that I should say one more thing. Perhaps, knowing New Orleans is "weak" would be the perfect reason to pursue such partnerships. Having the stronger, outer environs, along with the coming governor, vouch for the city is a way to stoke potential investment. Surely, with housing stocks low and rents unreasonably high, New Orleans is in no capacity to receive any influxs of labor, even if it could attract capital projects; that means it has to rely on its neighbors to absorb these newcomers, anyway. And so, for a time, while the metro region positions itself to attract new industry en masse, New Orleans can strengthen itself, by stomping for much-needed investment, while repairing infrastructure, mitigating crime and corruption, and encouraging residential rebuilding.
To me, the choice is simple: move beyond the provincialism, and accept the regional approach--or stick with the current lack of vision that will surely keep the city "too weak" to even recover...It should be a no-brainer, right?