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New Orleans area makes dramatic progress but needs to build on success: Michael Hecht

March 15, 2013

The Times-Picayune

Progress is not success. The gains that New Orleans has made since Hurricane Katrina are impressive but also fragile. So what do we have to do to preserve these gains and maintain growth? In this Times-Picayune opinion piece, Michael Hecht provides the answers to this question.

The progress of greater New Orleans over the past five years has been rapid and dramatic; the publisher of Forbes called it "one of the great turnarounds in American history." And, indeed, there is a preponderance of evidence that the metro area has not only come back from Katrina, but has come back better than ever.

In economic development, we are at the highest point, in every economic ranking, in our history. New Orleans was ranked the No. 1 most improved metro area in the United States [The Wall Street Journal], and Louisiana earned the distinction of being the No. 1 most improved state in the nation [Chief Executive Magazine]. With a sustained increase in job creation, the greater New Orleans area has been lauded as the No. 1 growing metro area for employment [Brookings Institution] and the No. 1 metro area for IT job growth in the United States [Forbes].

And there's a lot more to look forward to -- we live in the No. 1 state for economic growth potential [Business Facilities].

Given that necessity is the mother of invention, we have also become much more innovative. New Orleans was ranked the Top City for Young Entrepreneurs in 2011 [], leading the nation by 30 percent in number of startups-per-capita [GNO Community Data Center]. Louisiana was rated the No. 2 state in which to start a company [Tax Foundation + KPMG].

Encouragingly, talented people are voting with their feet, choosing this region to build a career and start a family. In fact, Louisiana has enjoyed five straight years of net in-migration for the first time in decades [U.S. Census Bureau]. New Orleans grew faster than any other major U.S. city in the 15 months after the 2010 decennial headcount [U.S. Census Bureau]. And as more and more people make New Orleans their home, their talents come with them, evidenced by the city's No. 1 ranking on the list of "America's Biggest Brain Magnets" for attracting people under 25 with college degrees [Forbes].

Finally, long-standing quality of life challenges - from education and the environment to corruption - are being transformed into models of reform. New Orleans was named "America's Best City for School Reform" [Fordham Institute], while the national perception of corruption has improved 22 percent in two years [Lake Research]. The Restore Act is poised to bring billions for coastal stabilization, preserving our resources for generations to come.

In recent years, greater New Orleans has rediscovered both its imagination and will - and the result has been truly remarkable progress.

But progress is not yet success. Our gains are fragile.

Over the next three years, post-Katina funding will wind down; the rest of the country will emerge from the Great Recession, and the energy of rebuilding could begin to attenuate. We have hit the inflection point. The question now is, will we stay aloft?

What do we have to do to translate this recent progress into long-term success?

Part of the answer lies in critical mass: developing enough companies and a trained workforce so that our economy becomes self-sustaining.

Part of the answer lies in institutionalization - of policies, programs and organizations - to ensure that our progress will continue even as people change.

Finally, the answer lies in making permanent our newfound culture of excellence, whereby Louisiana no longer competes against Mississippi, but against the world - as we successfully did this year for GE Capital.

The symbolic start of our recovery may have begun on Sept. 25, 2006, when Steve Gleason blocked that punt against the Falcons. If so, then it is appropriate to say that we are now at half time.

The Saints went on to win that game. Now, if we play our second half like the first - with focus, energy and unanimity of purpose across the region - then we too will triumph.

Michael Hecht is president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., the regional economic development organization for the 10-parish greater New Orleans region.

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