Digital Divide

by Nathan Stubbs

State budget cuts will likely take a toll on local digital media initiatives    With posters for Gears of War, The Dark Knight and Yoda lining the walls, 3D Squared’s office is decorated like a teenager’s game room, in stark contrast to the other more prepossessing business suites on the second floor of Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise. And with a group of college and high school kids huddled around computers showing virtual characters and landscapes, it’s easy to confuse the group as being hard at play, not work. Joe Castille, executive producer of the state-funded digital workforce initiative, clears up a common misperception. “What we’re doing is not so much about video games,” he says. “Video games is what helps the kids get excited, but it’s about a broader skill set. It’s the technical skills, teamwork, problem solving and communications.”

Blurring the line between playing a video game and learning the ins of the game industry is one of the ways 3D Squared is trying to pioneer digital media education and workforce training in the state. Last year, 3D Squared received a $750,000 budget allocation from the state — sponsored by Lafayette Sen. Mike Michot and state Rep. Page Cortez — to establish its office at LITE, develop the educational prototype, as well as perform a statewide assessment of existing digital media programs and resources. With those tasks nearly complete, 3D Squared is now looking to take the next step in its mission: developing a full-blown curriculum that can either be implemented in technical colleges and universities or as its own online workforce training program. This year, Cortez sponsored an allocation of $4.5 million for the group to continue its work — money that is now in jeopardy due to the gaping shortfalls across the budget, including $219 million in proposed cuts to higher education. This week, the state Senate will begin its review of funds allocated in HB1, the House budget bill.

“We expect to come out of the process with a substantially smaller allocation,” Castille says, “but there seems to be a growing consensus that this is an important initiative.”

Down the hall at UL’s Cinematic Arts Workshop, Director Charles Richard says he didn’t even bother submitting another legislative appropriation request similar to the one his group received last year. He’s also grappling with a recent reduction in grant funding from the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the fact that he cannot get his proposed bachelor’s degree in moving image arts approved because the Board of Regents has placed a hold on any new degree programs (this despite the new degree coming at virtually no additional cost). The state is also looking at scaling back funding for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities — another entity that several up and coming filmmakers rely on for grants. “It’s the indirect impacts that are a lot harder to measure but they’re no less significant,” Richard says.

Meanwhile, officials at LITE have for months been stressing over the very direct impact they will likely face. The nascent immersive visualization center still receives approximately 80 percent of its operating budget from the state, through UL.

Earlier this year, LITE’s board of commissioners directed interim chief executive officer Henry Florsheim to prepare for a worse-case scenario hit of $500,000, or 13 percent of LITE’s $3.9 million annual operating budget. That’s on top of a $150,000 budget cut UL passed on to LITE in January, as part of its mid-year budget revisions, and a $400,000 grant from LEDA that goes away July 1. Bradd Clark, dean of sciences at UL-Lafayette and chair of the LITE board of commissioners, says UL could soon be put in a very difficult position. “I’m absolutely amazed at what seems to be going on in Baton Rouge,” he says. “It could be rough, if they really go ahead with this. It’s going to do damage.”

Clark says that UL President Joseph Savoie will have the final say as to how much of UL’s own state budget cuts get passed on to LITE. “I hope he’s going to try to protect LITE because of its importance for economic development in the community,” Clark says.

In addition to salary cuts, Florsheim says the center may also have to forego planned software and technology upgrades. “That’s why these cuts are so harmful for us,” he says. “For LITE to be successful, we have to stay on the cutting edge with technology and staff.”

Several of LITE’s tenants feel the same way. “When it comes to digital media, we’re all very interdependent,” says Richard. “A cut for one is felt by everyone.”