Sept. 17, 2013 06:00 AM

LED Secretary Stephen Moret says a few thousand acres in core Acadiana parishes could be the ticket to luring bigger projects. It's a bit early to call Stephen Moret's recent tour of editorial boards around the state a victory lap, but just barely.

Since taking office in 2008, Moret reports $55 billion in investment and predicts another $20 billion before the end of Gov. Jindal's second and final term in 2015. Moret says this will be "the largest manufacturing boom in Louisiana's history," noting one of the biggest limiting factors will be available workforce. So what of the cuts to higher ed that make it more difficult to train those workers?

Moret says though buffered, the state is not unscathed by the national economic slump, which means tight budgets. Tax exemptions for things like drugs and food dwarf the impact of tax incentives for economic development, he says. Add the governor's commitment to no new taxes and the model is now more tuition-based. But given the in-state momentum, Moret predicts more money for Louisiana as the national economy recovers: "Once we're in a normal growth phase [nationally], I think we'll experience good growth in the general fund." Presumably, that rising tide will lift all boats, including higher ed. Now in his sixth year as the state's chief job creator, Moret is bullish on Louisiana. Arguably, that's his role, but some of his optimism is based on global trends beyond the purview of his office. Manufacturing jobs are being repatriated to the U.S. in compelling numbers because Chinese wages and shipping costs are up, domestic shale gas is cheap, the productivity of American workers is rising, and there are very real benefits to doing business in the same time zone. "For a variety of reasons, Louisiana is well positioned to benefit from this trend," Moret predicts, particularly north of I-10, which he says is ripe for machinery, aerospace and automotive production. "Low natural gas prices are driving business development, and Louisiana will get a disproportionate number [of jobs] in the eight or nine categories that are moving back to the U.S."

Beyond energy production, Moret's crystal ball conjures up software development opportunities for Lafayette and Acadiana. "The IBM-LSU deal helped us a lot," he says, referring to the collaboration between his department, LSU and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation that will bring 800 IBMers to the former downtown Advocate headquarters in the Capitol City. He says it opened doors for LED to discuss other Louisiana resources with a growing number of top tech companies in the nation. "UL is ahead of LSU in computer science. The UL computer science program is a great asset," he says.

So what's our biggest obstacle to the gargantuan deals Moret has inked in some other parts of the state? "Acadiana as a region has the fewest number of big manufacturing sites," he says, reviewing a spreadsheet in his file that catalogues such real estate plays by region.

Defined as 500-1,000 acre tracts of flat land that are close to a four-lane highway and perhaps even rail, an inventory of them needs to be at his fingertips to provide real time response to prospects. It could be the key to expanding our region's economic base into advanced manufacturing, like aerospace and machinery. He praised the work to date of the Acadiana Economic Development Council but says the group is underfunded when compared to others in the state.

"As Acadiana grows," he said, "a bigger investment in regional economic development could really pay off."

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