New Orleans leads one of country's biggest migration turnarounds
Don Ames Reporting
It appears New Orleans can legitimately stake a claim to being the country's "Comeback King."
In a recent Forbes article, "Where Americans are Moving," author Joel Kotkin writes that a "huge turnaround can be seen in New Orleans, which ranked a dismal 43rd (of 51) for 2000-09 as residents fled not only Katrina but a stagnant, low-wage, corruption-plagued economy. But in our 2010-11 ranking, the Crescent City surged to a respectable 16th, one of the biggest migration turnarounds in the country."
"We've actually had the greatest population increase in the whole country," says Michael Hecht, President & CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc.
Hecht says the turnaround from the first half of the decade has been remarkable, for both the city and the state.
"We're the fastest growing city in the whole country. And, at the state level, we'll have five years of net in-migration."
He says it's part of the rise of the "Third Coast," as the east and west coasts become more congested and folks find it harder to have a decent quality of life on a living wage in those places.
While the other two coasts struggle with economic stagnation and dysfunctional politics, the urbanized, broadly coastal region spanning the Gulf from Brownsville, Texas, to greater Tampa is emerging as a center of industry, innovation, and economic growth.
"Folks are recognizing more opportunities in the south, and this is consistent with what we're seeing here in New Orleans. You can do better for less and have a better time here in Greater New Orleans than almost anywhere else."
What's more, the "Third Coast" is winning the battle of the brains. Between 2007 and 2009, New Orleans, which had hemorrhaged educated people for the previous few decades, enjoyed the largest percentage gain of educated people of any metropolitan area with a population of over 1 million, according to the Census Bureau.
"It's a more diverse population. It's a more educated population, and I think it's an indication that people now think that New Orleans has some of the best opportunity, at a personal level, of anywhere in the country," says Hecht.
He points to an objective survey of 100 metros in the country done by Parenting Magazine last year.
"New Orleans came in #16 in the whole country as the best place to raise a family. Atlanta came in 45th and Houston came in 54th. When you objectively look at New Orleans and Louisiana, it's actually a pretty authentic place to live right now."
But, is the area's growth sustainable?
"Over the next two or three years, the hundred and fifty billion dollars from Katrina will be spent down. Naturally, the energy that has sustained us, post-Katrina, will begin to attenuate. The rest of the country is going to begin to catch up as they come out of this business cycle and move out of the great recession which, quite frankly, we really benefited from on a relative basis. While the rest of the country lost over three percentage point in terms of employment, we actually gained two-tenths of a percent during the great recession," says Hecht.
"So, the real game for us is, over the next two or three years, can we develop enough critical mass of companies to provide the right types of jobs so that when we get back to 'the new normal' our population increase and improvement is going to be sustainable? And that's really our job, in economic development, over the next couple of years."
"The bad news is that our existing infrastructure for transporting oil and gas is being strained," Hecht says. "The good news is that's because America is entering an age of potential energy independence and the sources of that energy independence are actually located in the Gulf of Mexico, with Louisiana smack in the middle of it. So, yes, we are going to have to see some infrastructure needs addressed, going forward. But, it's simply because we are blessed to be in the middle of a massive growth market in energy."
"I think that what we've seen in the last week...the biggest project ever in Louisiana...a 16 to 21 billion dollar project from South African company Sasol in Lake Charles, being driven by natural gas...is the kind of project that we're going to see, also, in our region going forward. We have massive projects along the river, driven by natural gas."
"We also are going to continue to see great opportunities in digital and software. And, of course, the cranes are in the sky and the medical corridor is going up. If you consider that Birmingham, a region two-thirds of our size, gained fifty-three thousand jobs off their medical corridor, then we have an opportunity for tens of thousands of jobs here, as well. So, both of those argue well for the future, too."