Central Louisiana and the entire Gulf region faced the pandemic on top of back to back storms and hurricanes and has remained resilient through it all. On this episode of the Economic Development podcast, Larkin Simpson, Executive Vice President of Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance shares how his region is recovering and also maximizing sector opportunities in manufacturing and wood.

Being an outdoor state like we are in a very recreation-focused area of our state, one of the areas where we’re trying to recruit heavily in is outdoor recreation, and not just from a tourism standpoint, but from a business standpoint. We’re also pursuing ‘Ag-in-the-middle’. We expect that to be big for us.

For information about Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance:
cenla.org
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Episode Transcript:

Larkin Simpson 00:00

The other thing that is very beneficial to us is being in an outdoor state like we are in a very recreation focused area of our state. One of the areas that we are trying to recruit heavily is outdoor recreation, and not just from a tourism standpoint, but from a business standpoint. We want to recruit the manufacturers. We want to recruit the businesses that are testing, applying and using outdoor products, and making outdoor products to not only do they produce them here, but you can test with them. You can train on here and you can use them here. And so we, we expect that to be big for us. One of the other things that’s going to be big for us in the coming years, is what we’re calling Ag-in-the-middle. We are working with a lot of our farmers.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  01:02

Fabiola Fleuranvil with Blueprint Creative Group and you are tuning into the Economic Development Podcast. Today’s guest is Larkin Simpson, who is at Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. Hey Larkin, how are you?

How’s things going in, in your area right now after the hurricanes?

Larkin Simpson 01:22

Well we’re back; we’re recovering. Just talked to one of our utility providers and they’re about 99% up for all of their customers. So the debris crews and the vegetation crews are picking up everything from the storm. And so we’ve got some partners to the West of us in our area there is still out. Certainly South of us in Lake Charles, that area is still devastated, but here in Central Louisiana, we seem to be doing good.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 01:50

Okay. Well, I guess, you know, some of it is good news. Well with that said, your region has been affected by several hurricanes. Obviously, the pandemic has not helped and everything else in between. So from your seat where you sit in terms of industry development helping small businesses, not just grow, but recover in spite of all of this and through all of this, what’s the greatest challenge for you right now?

Larkin Simpson 02:19

You know I think the biggest thing for us right now is just getting people to want to get out and make investment and want to get back out in the public; get back out into our retail stores and things like that. You know, it’s kind of interesting for us. We cover 10 parishes in Central Louisiana, ten counties for those who aren’t familiar with parish systems. But  it’s been real interesting in what we do with COVID and even with the storm and recent hurricane. We didn’t have a lot of downtime for my manufacturers. And a lot of our larger employers, they all kind of hit pause right at the beginning in early March and took some time off and even some of them shut down and quarantine or whatever until they figured out what they were going to be. But then once they came back, they came back really strong through COVID.

Larkin Simpson 03:17

Most of our manufacturers were even hitting yearly productions in the second quarter of the year. And so we had that going on and then with the hurricane now, obviously everybody kind of shut down and we sheltered and took precautions and stuff like that. And one of our main major issues was the power outages. But once our utility crews figured out how to get power back, most of our major manufacturers were 24 hours, 48 hours without power, but then they were back online and they were producing and not only were they producing for their customers, but they were producing and helping out the community in other ways. And that’s really been a beneficial thing for us. It’s just the resiliency of our people for both of these different but, similar circumstances.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  04:09

So that’s remarkable. So your manufacturing sector is doing pretty well despite these challenges. Are there any other sectors that you’ve noticed to either rebound pretty quickly or not be as affected as some of your other sectors have been?

Larkin Simpson 04:26

Yeah. You know, particularly in COVID, one of the things that I think has hit the whole country is that our retail sector and our main street businesses and our mom and pops our storefronts. But really we work a lot with entrepreneurs. And if you, if you have entrepreneurs who are business people who are focused on their business and they’re willing to pivot, and they’re willing to grow, and they’re willing to put in the work, those guys have come out of this with new product lines, new development. They’ve cut costs where they had to. They’ve sloughed off things that they needed to become leaner. And so they’ve really grown. And so a lot of our entrepreneurs and our medium size businesses, and even our small businesses are doing well. The ones who just really haven’t fully recovered or those walk up retail stores or restaurants and bars and things like that. Those are the ones who are still affected, but if anybody could switch to an online platform or provide services in non-traditional ways, they’ve really done well and exceeded.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  05:36

Okay, good. So let’s switch gear. So in terms of the outlook for your organization, your region, obviously you’re not alone. Every other region and market is reconfiguring what their economic development initiatives look like, reprioritizing certain industries. Even, you know, trying to think through how to help grow the entrepreneurial and innovation sector. So in terms of future outlook in the next short term, because we’re still in the thick of COVID and wondering what next year is going to look like. So in the very short term, and then just maybe near long-term, the next three to five years, what are some of the more promising industries that you’re seeing are showing a lot of potential for growth that perhaps were not the focus industries prior to all of these challenges being put on the table?

Larkin Simpson  06:30

So one of the biggest industries and biggest sectors that we focus on is wood products and a home goods, things like that. We sit in the middle of one of the largest wood baskets in North America, and that is very beneficial for us. That’s been great. Through COVID home prices are up; home starts are up. And so all of the different wood components that are produced here have just been blowing and going. Lots of folks who were stuck at home, doing home projects, DIY projects, things like that. And so our area has done really well producing those wood products for those projects. The other thing that is very beneficial to us is being in an outdoor state like we are in a very recreation focused area of our state.

Larkin Simpson  07:25

The other thing that is very beneficial to us is being in an outdoor state like we are in a very recreation focused area of our state. One of the areas that we are trying to recruit heavily is outdoor recreation, and not just from a tourism standpoint, but from a business standpoint. We want to recruit the manufacturers. We want to recruit the businesses that are testing, applying and using outdoor products, and making outdoor products to not only do they produce them here, but you can test with them. You can train on here and you can use them here. And so we, we expect that to be big for us.

One of the other things that’s going to be big for us in the coming years, is what we’re calling Ag-in-the-middle. We are working with a lot of our farmers as entrepreneurs to work on small farms not only not to produce commodities, but to produce fresh foods for our rural communities, for our farmer’s markets and just for better healthy living lifestyles. All of those things coincide with our economic growth plan of where we’re going. And so that’s where we’re really looking for expansion in our future.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  08:33

Okay, good. So in terms of, you know from a macro perspective with the industr depending on the market, some markets are really looking to see where they’re going to get some of that relocation boom from. You know, as some of the larger metros seem to be losing some of their talent while others seem to be attracting that talent. Other metros are gearing up to perhaps attract some of the businesses who are shifting to the remote work and looking for more affordable cost-effective markets to relocate to. Where do you think your region stands in the midst of all of that?

Larkin Simpson  09:09

So I would say we fit both of those models really well. You know one of the big benefits to being in a rural community, a rural sector, like we are, is the people here like being home every night. We’ve got a lot of folks who work off shore. We have a lot of folks travel for work, things like that. But for the most part, our workforce in the general area, they like to be able to travel, 40, 50 miles to work up to that amount for work, and then come home to be with their families, be home with their kids. You know; seeing their kids grow up, see their kids’ sports teams, all of those things. And you can do that very well where we are in Central Louisiana.

Larkin Simpson 09:51

You can travel easily both, by car or by plane. You know, we have international airports. So, you know, you’re a plane ride from anywhere you want to be in the world. And so for that if you want to work remotely, but still need to get to the East Coast and West Coast to be in person, you can do. If you want to work remotely and stay right here, but have connectivity to virtually be wherever you need to be. You can do that. And then also just people like kind of a slower pace of life. They liked knowing their neighbors, they like knowing the people in their community. And so those are things where you have people who have gone off for a couple of years, going to major cities, going to major metros and have done the big city lifestyle. They can very easily come into one of our areas. Still have the symphonies and the zoos and the nightlife and the atmosphere and all those other things within a short drive. But just have a slower pace of life and have that family life that people are looking for.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  10:55

So, you know, with that said, it seems like obviously the outdoor recreation spaces where you could probably stand to start recruiting some of those companies from other markets and then obviously manufacturing, that’s always a growing sector anyway. And then COVID seemed to have revived that sector or made it even sexier, you know, as we’ve had to scramble for PPP equipment and refocus back on manufacturing at home. So those seem to be pretty strong sectors for your market.

Larkin Simpson  11:29

Yeah. And it really has. You know, and that’s the thing is most of our, even our major employers when they were working out for their workforce and they were looking for their workers and they were putting in new safety measures and personal productive measures, things like that, they were talking about hundreds of employees. They weren’t talking about thousands of employees. And so the industries they had the workforce, they had the people they needed. And while they may have had to shut down for a short amount of time to put those measures in place, all the employees came to work, came back to work, they were ready to go; ready to work. And so you have this really good community among the employees and among the employers and just in the community in general. And so people want to go to work where we are, and that’s good if you’re an employer, because if you have to do a shut down for some reason you know you have really good people who are going to come back. They’re not just going to leave and go find a job somewhere else. They’re going to feel somewhat obligated and connected to the companies that they work for.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 12:39

Good. So it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I certainly look forward to seeing the outcome of some of these growth sectors. And obviously we want to continue to see your region also re-emerged from some of the damages from the hurricane. And hopefully, no more hurricanes for awhile. I’m in a Florida.

Larkin Simpson 12:58

Hopefully, no more hurricanes.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  12:58

This is something that we’re accustomed to, but it seems like the last few hurricanes have kind of redirected towards your way. Unfortunately, not that we want them here in Florida either. But we’ve been spared quite a few times these last few years.

Larkin Simpson  13:13

You know, and, and that’s a good point. I’ve had several people from around the country. They asked me, “Hey, are you leaving because of the hurricanes, are you going to relocate because of the hurricane?” No, we’re insulated where we are. We know how to protect ourselves we know how to be prepared for these things. And so we safely do that, but we get back to work as quickly as we can.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  13:32

I totally agree with you as a Floridian. So that’s the one thing that we can all say hurricanes, actually, we can recover from, I mean, granted the damage is there, but you can be a pretty resilient community, even despite being in a hurricane prone zone.

Larkin Simpson  13:48

Right.

Fabiola Fleuranvil   13:49

Good. So I appreciate the time. Thank you again.

Fabiola Fleuranvil  13:53

Thanks again for tuning into the Economic Development Podcast presented by Blueprint Creative Group. There are more episodes featuring economic development leaders throughout the country. And we thank all of the participants for sharing their perspectives. Check out all of the episodes in this series at blueprintcreativegroup.com/economicdevelopment.

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