George Swift loves him some B.B. King — so much so that he is helping to establish the Music Museum of Southwest Louisiana. The museum hasn’t opened yet, and in the meantime he’s not quitting his day job.
Swift is the president — the first and only — of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance, which was founded following 2005’s Hurricane Rita. It represents the shared economic interests of a five-parish region around Lake Charles and grew out of a merger of the SWLA Partnership, of which Swift was executive director, the Chamber SWLA — a traditional chamber of commerce — and the Alliance Foundation, a nonprofit that funds economic development in the region. Think of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance as Lake Charles’ version of One Acadiana.
His office is at the SEED Center — Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center — housed at McNeese State University in Lake Charles. SEED is a business incubator and one of many feathers in Swift’s cap.
And speaking of feathers, in his office hang prints by late Calcasieu Parish wildlife artist Elton Louviere, who is to Southwest Louisiana what the late Elemore Morgan Jr. is to Acadiana. One print is of bald eagle, the other of a field of pine trees with quail, which reminds him of his native Selma, Ala.
It was there in the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s that Swift came of age and got a first-hand view of an often troubling but ultimately triumphant chapter in American History. Swift’s father served on the Selma City Council — an office in which Swift himself would serve two terms.
As a teenager he worked at a local radio station and rubbed shoulders with national media figures who converged on the Deep South to report on the struggle. One of his most prized office knickknacks is a photo of himself and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, who was elected to Congress in 1987, the same year Swift moved to Lake Charles with his wife, Pat, and their two sons.
Now a doting grandfather of two young girls, Swift says that having granddaughters “has made me realize that you want every opportunity for them with no limit. So, I guess I’m a feminist.” He’s also a question answerer.
What, in your opinion, are the biggest issues facing Calcasieu Parish in 2016 and the near future? Where do you see your parish, economically in 10 years, 20 years?
The biggest issue facing our region is getting our Louisiana residents training so they can take advantage of the thousands of jobs coming to our area. We also have tremendous infrastructure needs. At the Alliance we are working on generational ideas and plans with our quality of life efforts to make our area a place of choice for future generations. We are asking residents this question: What kind of region do you want in the year 2040? If we don’t take advantage of this boom, we will have failed.
Tell me about your involvement with Go Group. Is it fulfilling its function and vision?
The Go Group is trying to plan and identify changes to be sure the growth has a positive impact. It is challenging work, but again we must seize the moment. It will require some hard choices and changes, but we have no choice if we want the best for future generations.
Is it safe to assume that the rapid expansion of industry in the Calcasieu Parish area — and the recent and forecasted population expansion — has placed a strain on infrastructure and other resources? What are public officials and/or the Alliance in Calcasieu doing to address these issues?
Our local officials are being proactive with transportation projects, drainage projects and sewer projects so the infrastructure can keep up with the growth. We are behind the curve, but with the largest amount of projects in the nation, we are running hard to keep up.
In your opinion is Calcasieu’s and especially Lake Charles’ infrastructure keeping up with population? What about housing for the skilled labor and other workers expected to inundate the area?
Construction worker housing is needed, and several employee villages have been approved and thousands of RVs are housing the workers. Temporary permanent housing is being handled by the private sector with thousands of homes under construction or planned for the immediate future.
What’s going to happen with that scary I-10 bridge? We read about the I-210 bridge closing for repairs this summer. Are these issues that keep you up at night?
The Alliance has formed a coalition called “In for 10,” an effort to build public support and rally local, state and federal officials to speed up the construction of a new I-10 bridge in Lake Charles. This bridge is structurally sound but unsafe to drive because of the steep incline, and no lanes to pull off if you encounter a problem. As it stands now, this could be a 10-year project. With the reconstruction of the I-210 bridge beginning this summer, it is important to speed up the new bridge. I-10 is vital to our nation’s energy needs and commerce.
How has Lake Charles’ connection with Lafayette changed over the last several years in light of Lafayette businesses expanding there and Lafayette workers seeking employment there?
When the SWLA Economic Development Alliance was formed and I was hired, one of my first visits was to Gregg Gothreaux at LEDA. I had always admired LEDA. Gregg really helped us with great information. We have always talked about how our two regions could work together. Mayor [Joey] Durel and [Lake Charles] Mayor [Randy] Roach and other officials helped us form a super region on paper, but it has not really functional. With the new One Acadiana established, I am hopeful that we can work together. There is strength in numbers, and our two regions don’t really compete. Each has its own separate economic base. SWLA has been working with Acadiana to help displaced workers get jobs in SWLA. We also can work together on the I-10 bridge and I-49 South projects because these two projects help our state and nation and should not be seen as competitors.