News Briefs

1,000 new Lafayette jobs, gators head to the basin and more


Gov. Kathleen Blanco told the Louisiana Democratic Party that she's running for re-election when her current term expires, but that political promise hasn't silenced other potential Democratic candidates. Former U.S. Rep. Chris John of Lafayette, now a big-money lobbyist in Washington, D.C., told The Shreveport Times he is "very interested in the race" but wouldn't run against Blanco. John was not the only new face deflecting old questions last week. Congressman Charlie Melancon, a freshman from Napoleonville, says "friends" are encouraging him to consider the race. "That's not anything I'm planning on doing," Melancon told WRKF radio in Baton Rouge. "But I never say never." ' Jeremy Alford


Economic gloom turned into boom earlier this year when state officials found $750 million in new cash ' mainly from taxes and gambling ' to pump into the budget. National media outlets expressed surprise over the treasure, especially since a fiscal nightmare was expected for Louisiana in the wake of Katrina and Rita.

Well, every penny has been spent, and conservatives like Treasurer John Kennedy are warning that was a mistake. Kennedy has been giving speeches around the state predicting the economic boost will only be temporary and the storm's effects will eventually catch up. To bolster the argument, Kennedy's office has started referring to a group of studies citing South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Delaware as having local economies that spiked following a hurricane but later tapered off. Following Hurricane Andrew in 1994, for instance, the University of Florida experienced a temporary increase in job growth due to reconstruction that was spurred by insurance payments and federal money. The studies have prompted Kennedy and others to repeatedly ask one unanswered question: What's next for the state? ' JA


The Acadiana economy got quite a boost early this week when Canadian-based NuComm International announced its largest ever call center in the former Service Merchandise building in Northgate Mall ' creating 1,000 jobs in the first year with starting pay upwards of $9 an hour including health insurance and other benefits. Scheduled to open in late September, this is the company's 14th customer contact center, a $3.5 million investment with a local estimated economic impact of more than $115 million annually, according to a study by UL Lafayette economist Dr. Anthony Greco.

The majority of NuComm's Lafayette employees will be telephone representatives handling inbound technical support and customer care calls. Its centers offer such services for companies in the cable, telecom, automotive, financial services, retail, media and entertainment sectors. "We know we have a working poor and underemployed population, and these jobs address that community. They will help people making $6 an hour with no benefits," says Gregg Gothreaux of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, which worked with state and local government to secure NuComm.

Such service jobs are lifting lowest income positions up in Lafayette, Gothreaux says, contributing to its No. 3 ranking in per capital income in the state (the mean income computed for every man, woman and child).

A NuComm job fair will be held this week, Wednesday, Aug. 9 through Saturday, Aug. 12, at the Louisiana Technical College's Lafayette campus on Bertrand Drive. For more information, contact LEDA at (337) 593-1416.

In a press release announcing NuComm's Lafayette center, Gov. Kathleen Blanco says the state committed $1 million from its Rapid Response fund to make the deal happen. ' Leslie Turk


If state officials can't reach a compromise with Allstate executives soon, another special session may have to be called to deal with insurance issues. Lawmakers on the Legislature's insurance committees called for the session last week, although a few have forecasted it since the spring. At the core of the disagreement are Allstate's attempts to dump wind and hail coverage in south Louisiana. Consumer protection laws prohibit Allstate from doing this, at least on paper, and some lawmakers are willing to go back into session to strengthen the wording.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco says she has encouraged Allstate to pursue other options ' like raising deductibles. "I have asked Allstate to seek creative consumer-focused solutions and options that provide consumer choice in coverage," Blanco says. "This will reiterate to their customers that they are indeed 'in good hands.'" Largely, though, Blanco seems to have placed the mess in the hands of Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, who has the unique challenge of standing up for consumers while keeping insurers in the state. Blanco said she was waiting to hear the "next steps" from Donelon. ' JA


The Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee has passed legislation that would allow private banks to issue disaster loans that are guaranteed by the SBA ' for up to two years after a hurricane. "This legislation makes some positive improvements in the SBA, in particular in the disaster loan program, implementing some of the lessons learned after Rita and Katrina," says U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Metairie Republican sponsoring the Small Business Reauthorization and Improvements Act.

The measure would enable states to administer federal bridge loans on their own and allow the SBA to contract for extra staff to help process applications. It also combats fraud and establishes new policy that limits contract bundling, which will help reduce the need for big mega contracts and ensure small, local businesses get more contracting opportunities, Vitter says. ' JA


UL Lafayette is in line to receive nearly $700,000 from the TRIO Talent Search Program, a federal funded initiative that helps disadvantaged students graduate from college. The program identifies individuals who have the potential to succeed in higher education and provides them with academic, career and financial counseling, according to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who announced the available money this week.

Fifteen colleges and universities around the state will receive similar grants, she says, which will go toward supporting 11,650 students. The program encourages drop-outs to get back into school and also helps students who might still be in a transitional period since last year's hurricanes. "The TRIO program is not only essential to helping students fulfill their dreams by remaining in college," Landrieu says, "but also in helping displaced students overcome the significant obstacles and concerns they face as a result of the hurricanes." ' JA


Non-profit organization the Arthritis Association of Louisiana is accepting nominations for its annual "Tribute to Excellence" award, and the 2006 award will honor a person who devoted his or her time and resources to rescue and/or recovery efforts after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Deadline for nominations is Sept. 30; for more info or a nomination form, visit or call (866) 390-8736. ' Scott Jordan


With much of the marsh south of New Orleans and west of Vermilion Bay devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the upper Atchafalaya Basin is poised for an influx of displaced alligators. Vegetation in coastal marshes that provides cover for alligators was destroyed, and salt water pushed up into freshwater areas. While salt won't kill an adult alligator, hunter Jude Mequet of Henderson says alligator prey ' mainly turtles, fish and snakes ' have been affected. "Every gator down south has been pushed up north. I'm seeing bigger and bigger alligators," he says. "We can tell it's going to be a good year by how many we see."

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission met on Aug. 3 to determine how many alligator tags would be issued this year. Vermilion Gator Farms owner and Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner Wayne Segrera says there will be a statewide reduction from 36,000 tags to 30,000 alligator tags, and 3,000 fewer tags will be issued in Vermilion and Cameron Parishes than in previous years. "The impact to the marsh has been far greater in southwest Louisiana," Segrera says. A prolonged drought before the hurricanes hit was already affecting alligators, and the high salinity levels from the storm surge have put alligators under further stress. "Alligators will not lay eggs in severe drought years," Segrera says. "There is very little nesting going on ' it's down 50 percent statewide."

Since fewer females will be on their nests protecting their babies this year, more females will be caught during the hunt. "That's bad for next year's population," says Segrera. "But people are so desperate for income in this area, that they are going to hunt no matter what."

From an economic standpoint, because there will be fewer alligators, prices will stay high. Segrera expects to see upwards of $40 a pound for alligator hides.

The alligator farming industry will also struggle this year. Alligators don't lay eggs in captivity; farmers harvest eggs from wild nests in the late spring and summer. This year, farmers will release approximately 55,000 1-year-old alligators into the marsh, hoping to replenish the population. Those yearlings hatched from last year's harvest, which was collected before the hurricanes struck. This year, the nest and egg count has been decimated. "It's a very serious year for farmers," Segrera adds.

Meanwhile, Mequet is looking for a 13-foot alligator that got away last year. "I hooked him on 300-pound test line that's so thick they call it piano wire," he says. "I was pulling him up, and he was thrashing. He probably weighed a ton. I couldn't do anything, and the line popped." Mequet will be using even heavier line when alligator hunting season opens Sept. 6. ' Mary Tutwiler