The link between Fibrebond’s infrastructure woes & bad job numbers

[Editor’s Note: This column will be published in the Sept. 3 print edition of BIZ. Magazine]

The most recent job numbers for the Shreveport metropolitan statistical area (MSA) were…not great. And, they could get worse in a short amount of time. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the Shreveport MSA lost 3,100 jobs from July 18 through July 19. It also lost 200 jobs from June 2019 to July 2019. 

What’s even more sobering is staring down the barrel of a potentially catastrophic loss of 750 jobs looming in a portion of the Shreveport MSA — which covers Caddo, Bossier, Webster and Desoto Parishes — in the form of Fibrebond leaving Minden for east Texas.

It came out in late August that the company has hired a site selection firm to consider “alternatives” in east Texas to remaining in Minden, due to infrastructure woes.

Fibrebond CEO Graham Walker sent an email to all employees explaining the decision, saying,  “To move a project to a customer’s job site, we need adequate road and bridge infrastructure. Since February 2019, I have worked to focus political attention on a critical issue: failing local bridges could shut our business down.”

He added that Fibrebond now has only one route for shipping projects, and three bridges on that route would be de-rated at next inspection, preventing Fibrebond from shipping their product.

And the clock is ticking. The letter said a decision would be made by Oct. 1.

Credit to state and local officials for rolling up their sleeves and working to ensure the 750 jobs stay in Minden. A meeting was held at Camp Minden Aug. 21 between Fibrebond, local, state, and Camp Minden officials with Camp Minden approving Fibrebond access to the base’s roads in order to cut 170-plus miles off of their current trucking route. The company has reported that it is satisfied with the efforts by everyone from Gov. John Bel Edwards to Sen. Ryan Gatti and Rep. Wayne McMahen to keep the company in Minden. 

Sean Green, editor and publisher of BIZ. Magazine

Minden Mayor Terry Gardner has written Gov. Edwards, saying it is “imperative” that the state’s Department of Transportation and Development get involved “immediately” and guarantee adequate infrastructure so the company can ship its product. Gatti told the Minden Press-Herald that he is continuing to push discussions to find a solution that satisfies all parties.

Honestly, it’s a political hot potato that comes at crunch time in an election year for a governor and state senator who are facing stiff opposition. I hope a deal will be done shortly after this column is published. For the record, I don’t blame Fibrebond. They need to be able to do business and if they are prevented from doing business, it doesn’t do anyone any good to shut down and lose the jobs regardless. So, they might as well move somewhere that allows them to keep their doors open and those jobs filled.

Still, how did we end up here? Well, Louisiana is broke. Our former governor was shortsighted due to an influx of FEMA money and everyone delayed solving the issue. Louisiana followed the national trend of increased spending while income shrinks. Yes revenue is up, but not enough to sort out the backlog on infrastructure and do all the things everyone wants to see done. Sacred Cows in the state’s constitution prevent money from being redistributed. The public has a palpable lack of faith in the state’s legislators that money from a gas tax or some other form of dedicated funding won’t be raided at the first sign of a rainy day. So, the backlog of ailing state roads and bridges grows. Minden and Fibrebond’s route are victims of that. 

And now, the chickens are coming home to roost in the form of a business potentially delivering a crippling blow to a community, lest they be crippled themselves. From the jobs report, its clear we need to not only add wherever we can, but hang on to whatever we already have. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of good work being done in the cyber and entrepreneurial realms here, but I have doubts that the state’s business ecosystem can hang on long enough for those to fully blossom.

Before we rage at Gov. Edwards, Sen. Gatti, and Rep. McMahen for not solving this sooner, unless there’s a systemic change in how all of Louisiana politics is done, there will be many more Fibrebonds in communities like Minden across the state. Maybe that’s what it will take to reboot the system and make a lasting change that sees a more prosperous Louisiana. 

Sean Green is publisher and editor of BIZ. Magazine