Business of Politics

Southern Yin and Northern Yang

by Jeremy Alford

While coastal communities are reaping the benefits of a new military installation and money for water resources, Louisiana’s northerly locales haven’t been as fortunate. When it came down to scoring major projects for military operations and water resources this August, it was all about location, location, location. Parishes near the Gulf of Mexico walked away from the table with an armload of chips to cash in, while parishes up in the piney woods busted flat. It was a study of extremes, which is nothing new when sizing up the geographic opposites of north and south Louisiana.

For starters, Air Force officials announced that they were stopping all work on the highly-touted Cyber Command at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier, which was has been considered a top candidate for the project for more than a year. Louisiana was so confident in landing the project that Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, dedicated $57 million to improve access via Interstate 220 and to make the site more attractive to the Air Force. The project was said to create several thousand jobs, attract several thousand more and position northwest Louisiana as a center for high tech and professional jobs.

Air Force officials contend they are simply “reviewing” the site and the federal government’s cyberspace goals. It’s another head-scratching decision. While the provision headquarters of this technology center has long been in Bossier City, it has thus far created only 40 or so positions. The Air Force has also delayed announcing, at least twice, where the headquarters would be and even said earlier this year that it could be split into five different locations, with Bossier City being one of them.

For now, it’s a waiting game, but Jindal has told reporters he’s working the project hard.

On the flip side, the Navy has finally agreed to build a massive campus for military and other federal offices in Algiers at the Naval Support Activity’s West Bank site. Congress still has to approve the deal, but it could equate to a 75-year lease agreement that greatly benefits the New Orleans region. The so-called “Federal City” project has been in the works for years, and the deadline for a decision was nearing on Sept. 30.

In recent months, negotiations had taken an ugly turn when the Navy refused to enter into any lease agreement with the New Orleans Federal Alliance, a nonprofit that was created in 2004 to oversee the project. Fearing the alliance didn’t have the legal framework needed to carry off the task, Navy officials instead began dealing with the Algiers Development District, which is recognized by Louisiana law. There are still hoops to jump through, mainly in Washington, D.C., but the financing is ready to be rolled out. The state Bond Commission endorsed using $150 million in bonds in July.

South Louisiana also got a bump last week when Jindal announced plans for more than $1 billion in coastal protection and restoration projects in Louisiana. The announcement marked the largest investment in coastal protection programs in Louisiana history. “I have said all along that the time for studies and research has long passed,” Jindal said. “It is time to start breaking ground and digging dirt on these projects.”

The plan includes $130 million for New Orleans’ hurricane protection cost share. While another agreement reached last week with the White House would not require Louisiana to provide matching funds until 2011 for certain levee projects, this $130 million investment will help expedite ongoing construction, which will help the Corps of Engineers meet its own 2011 deadline. There’s also money to back-up the long-held commitment from the state to acquire and restore Elmer’s Island near Grand Isle and make it available to the public for fishing and other recreational uses.

Some of the money earmarked by Jindal is a direct result of high gas prices and increased oil and gas activity. At least on this level, north Louisiana can share in the excitement. The state collected a $93.8 million windfall last week as sales of land leases continued to skyrocket. Energy companies are chasing underground natural gas reserves in northwest Louisiana, called the Haynesville Shale, and the numbers do the talking. It was the largest monthly sale Louisiana has seen in 28 years.

There has been a negative impact, however, on residents of Caddo Parish. Due to the rapid development of the nearby shale, underground water resources are drying up at an alarming rate. Bossier Parish residents are becoming concerned as well. Energy explorers are drilling new water wells to accommodate their operations, but the water is from the same underground sources that residents in eight parishes rely on. Citizen groups are forming to convince the energy companies to turn to surface water, but there’s no telling how the disagreement will work out.

It’s said you have to survive the bad to truly enjoy the good, which makes sense on some levels. But these days, it’s more likely that you’ll hear the maxim coming from the mouths of those in south Louisiana. After all, at least on these two particular issues, coastal parishes are getting the full yin while north Louisiana is stuck with the yang.