What will it take to get major projects in NWLA?

Conference gives update on local real estate, economy

Local real estate and economic development officials got an update last month on what it would take to attract new businesses to Shreveport-Bossier.

Bossier Parish Community College’s Economic & Workforce Development Division hosted the second annual Upstate Rising: The North Louisiana Public-Private Partnership, Real Estate Development, and Land Use Planning Law Conference Aug. 23.

The day-long economic development conference allowed participants to learn “best practices” and strategies to improve their business opportunities while providing networking opportunities.

On the agenda was keynote speaker Dr. Shawn Wilson, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development. Dr. Wilson discussed how public-private partnerships affects transportation infrastructure construction, expansion, and land use planning. While Kent Rogers, head of the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments (NLCOG), gave an update on the mega projects in Shreveport-Bossier. Other speakers included Bill Sanderson, mayor of the Village of Choudrant and building official for the City of Ruston; Neil Erwin, attorney, and Caroline E. Mladenka, MPA, of Neil Erwin Law, LLC; and real estate professional Curtis A. Wright, Sr.

Featured speakers for this year’s conference were Mike Mullis, president/CEO, and Denise Mott, managing director, for J.M. Mullis, Inc., a site selection firm. Mullis and Mott discussed trends and factors in site selection. 

Having visited north Louisiana several times throughout the last few decades, they shared a vital perspective on how the area has progressed and what it needs in the future to be more competitive.

Mott said firms like his first look at states and their growth projection. They then narrow it down to a region, skill sets, transferrable skill sets, and available sites. Then they look at the concentration of population and find the spots in between those pockets.

“Are there educational institutions in place to retrain?” Said Mott. “How is education and industry integration to create a pipeline?”

“It’s about where can we find a place that will stop that commute. Instead of driving 45 or 60 minutes to work, can we keep them close to home and they can drive 20 to 30 minutes,” she added.

Although, quality of life and image play a part as well.

“Is this a place where people want to live and raise a family? That plays a part, too,” Mott said.

They explained that northwest Louisiana is one of 1,200 regions in the United States. Which means that to secure a project, selectors have to be swayed by interest from the state of Louisiana, then the regional interest, and finally the specific area in that region. All in a very short period of time, with Mullis noting that site selection formerly took six to seven years and now is done in two to three years.

“We are only in your city one time. We’ve done all of our homework,” said Mullis. “So everything has to be in place to present an opportunity. If not, we have to walk away because we have to have that timeline.”

Mullis said an obstacle for companies is that when they make choices about selecting a site, they often look at data without “touching and feeling.” He noted that some communities, like Shreveport-Bossier, are a regional economy and are excluded from consideration due to a narrow focus on data.

“The first thing Louisiana suffers from is the illusion of perception. People think it’s all New Orleans, or it doesn’t exist…Perception is a killer,” Mullis said.

His opinion was that the area is dire need of rebranding, noting the for economic development, everything must be unified.

“There is a phenomenal difference between Shreveport, Bossier, and Minden. But one thing should be paramount: regionalism is a mandate. You’re big enough to market on your own,” said Mullis. “There are so many projects that would look (at the region) that wouldn’t necessarily fit in Shreveport or Bossier, but may fit in Minden.”

The pair noted that trends in site selection include logistics, transportation, operating costs, energy, water and wastewater access, permitting, and available property. Mullis noted the last trend — specifically availability, cost, and readiness for development — causes NWLA to “suffer.”

“The things we miss the most are being ready. Where are those sites that we can develop quickly? If we like a community and we have a little bit of time, we’ll work every angle to resolve that real estate problem. But so often, you don’t have time,” he said.

In his view, he sees the area attracting a project with a workforce of 500 employees, not the mega projects of 2,500-3,000 employees.

That said, Mullis was complimentary, adding that he had companies look at the former Shreveport General Motors plant six times.

There are a lot of opportunities,” Mullis said. “There is much here to offer if you can just encapsulate it and move forward.”

A panel of (left to right) Eric England, Bill Altimus, Bill Cooksey, and Brian Crawford was moderated by Liz Swain (far right).
(Courtesy of BPCC)

Elsewhere during the conference, a panel discussion facilitated by Liz Swaine, president of the Shreveport Downtown Development Authority, discussed development.

Participants included Bill Altimus, Bossier Parish administrator; Bill Cooksey, deputy director of the Shreveport Regional and Downtown Airports; Brian Crawford, CAO for the City of Shreveport; and Eric England, director and CAO of the Port of Caddo-Bossier.

England said the Port is doing the work to find which areas in Shreveport-Bossier would be attractive for development.

“We knew what site selectors are looking for in a site. We were available to plot those areas around Caddo and Bossier Parish and fed them into the (geographical information system mapping technology). We identified 22,000 acres in Caddo and Bossier Parishes and these sites that meet site selectors criteria and will bring businesses to town,” said England. “We did this to identify two sites of 500 acres each to attract something like Benteler Steel because we’ll need those sites to be shovel ready.”

Crawford, said there is an equation that equals economic development opportunity.

“Money and the company being able to make money, quality of life for their employees, and attitude,” he said. “From an economic development standpoint, we try to provide companies with  analysis that provides them the greatest opportunity.”

He noted the perception that crime is higher than ever aren’t backed up by the numbers and are only propagated across social media.

“I was at a neighborhood where they asked me why their property rates were so low and why nobody wanted to move here, I said, ‘Look at your Facebook page. You are killing yourselves.’”

Cookesy said the airport is trying to fill a regional niche.

“The Airport is a major development tool. It’s the gateway for getting investors here from Chicago or China,” he said.

Altimus was asked what attracts people to Bossier Parish. He noted that half of Bossier is in a flood zone and the cost of land is expensive, which means the parish has to work harder to make the land attractive.

“You’re really limited where you can go,” Altimus confessed. “We work really hard to bring in infrastructure. People want to know why traffic is so bad, it’s because that’s where the infrastructure is.”

“Our task with the jury is really water and sewer,” he added. “With water and sewer, you can go anywhere in the parish and build. That’s why we put a $55 million package together to bring in a parish wastewater system and that’s what we’re going to have to do to see development.”

When the panelists were asked what can be done to create a community poised for development,

Crawford was quick to point out that companies wanting to locate in Shreveport are looking at the schools, cleanliness of the city, and the neighborhoods. He said that means its up to the citizens to do the hard work.

“Collectively, I think it’s in the people who believe in their communities and believe they can be better,” Crawford said.

Finally, panelists were asked what the “next big thing” is when it comes to development.

Altimus proposed it is autonomous vehicles., explaining, “We embraced cyber and it’s turned out pretty well for us. Five or six years ago at a national transit seminar, I was listening to presentations regarding autonomous vehicles. There’s a lot of opportunity in it. There will be $2 trillion spent from now to 2025 on autonomous vehicles and structures. There’s a big play in that.”

Cooksey said it is regionalization, explaining, “The pilot shortage is hitting airports really hard. Airlines are looking where to pull out of. A lot of these smaller markets around us are going to see it and that’s where we’re poised for growth. That’s why it’s so important to see a regional alliance.”

Crawford noted that its Smart City Initiatives. He went on, “Today, millennials are moving where they want to live and then they’re finding a job. Smart City Initiatives are looking for those extra things like bike lines, creative spaces, dog parks, community wifi systems — they want those amenities available to them.”