Thursday, June 20, 2024

Don Pierson – Unabridged

by BIZ Magazine

BIZ Magazine’s Q&A with former Louisiana Secretary of Economic Development Don PIerson

Can you share some key achievements or initiatives during your tenure as the Secretary for Louisiana Economic Development (LED)?

As the Secretary of Louisiana Economic Development I was fortunate to accomplish a number of key initiatives.  On the one hand, there were those that were visible to the public, and on the other there were those internal to LED, and not quite as visible.  In the most important sense, the results achieved by LED in the last 8 years were by any measure, outstanding.  Over the past three years alone, LED’s efforts yielded more than $20Bn per year of new investment in Louisiana, creating thousands of permanent jobs, thousands of construction jobs, and jobs with high compensation.  This in turn created the State’s lowest unemployment rate (more people working) while importantly being compensated with higher wages.  I think that’s what the public wants from economic development professionals, results that are visible in their local economy.  As for the accomplishments that were more internal, LED was rigorously evaluated and certified as an Accredited Economic Development Organization (AEDO).  The only state in the nation to have such a designation, and one that should instill public confidence in the investment that is made to support LED.  Another accomplishment not visible on ‘Main Street’ was securing recognition for LED’s FastStart workforce training program as best in the nation.  We essentially won the Super Bowl seven of the last eight years.  That’s remarkable and this was achieved in a fluid environment of rapidly changing job skills needed in the workplace.  To do this LED embraced the evolving field of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and technology applications customized for training in the workplace — not to mention doing all this with numerous hurricanes, flooding incidents and a global pandemic as features disrupting our efforts.   

What were the major challenges you faced in promoting economic development in Louisiana, and how did you address them?

There were major challenges without question.  First, recognize that on day one as Secretary, our State determines that Louisiana has a $2 billion deficit to address. Severe budget cuts were imposed on all governmental agencies in Louisiana.  The fiscal environment in State government becomes 100% focused on fewer employees, frozen or reduced budgets and making fewer marketing dollars available.  The challenge we faced was to do more with less, and still successfully executing our mission of growing a vibrant economy. LED did reduce staffing, largely through attrition, and we stayed laser focused on the key ingredients of success in economic development:  

  1. Aggressively support the industry that is present in our state, to grow their expansions and modernizations.
  2. Aggressively compete for and win new industry in our state.
  3. Support and grow Louisiana’s small businesses, as they are a key ingredient required for new and existing industry.
  4. Embrace globalization and grow Louisiana’s international investment portfolio. 

I am proud that we were indeed able to weather the ‘fiscal storm’ and find tremendous success in our approach to statewide economic development efforts. It would be easy to elaborate on the success we attained in all of the key points shown above. 

Bossier Chamber of Commerce/GBEDF Experience:

Transitioning from the Bossier Chamber of Commerce/GBEDF to LED Secretary is a significant shift. How did your experience in leading a local chamber influence your approach to economic development at a state level?

The shift was indeed significant.  Leading a non-profit like the Bossier Chamber or the Greater Bossier Economic Development Foundation (GBEDF) were great professional development platforms for me.  When stepping into State government in 2005 as a senior executive, I was presented with a whole new array of challenges.  In many respects, as an executive you are now serving numerous “masters.”   To speak to that understand that as a member of the Executive Branch of government, you serve the Governor.  To get the assets you need (budget) you must collaborate with the Legislature.  To compete with other States and win projects you must position LED to win, in the eyes of consultants and corporations.  Without question, the “local” perspective that I brought to Baton Rouge gave me vision and understanding that others lacked.  Every project is located in a Louisiana Parish if LED is successful with a “win”.  When you understand that the parish role is important, and critical to success, your pathway to success at LED is enhanced.  Thanks to my service at the Bossier Chamber and GBEDF, I understood this key element and I enjoyed establishing strong local partnerships across the state with mayors, parish presidents, ports, chambers and economic development organizations. 

Are there specific strategies or lessons from your time at the Bossier Chamber of Commerce/GBEDF that you found applicable or beneficial during your role as LED Secretary?

In Bossier, I came to understand that a strong economy is a diversified economy.  Resilience is enhanced when one area of the economy may be suffering, but others are there to sustain the challenges presented.  I took that strategy with me to state service.  Bossier is strong, in part, due to Barksdale Air Force Base.  Across our state, the idea of managing and growing our military installations had not been engaged.  Bossier is strong, in part, due to the Caddo-Bossier Port. Across our state, the idea of growing and managing our ports was not being engaged.  I worked with the Caddo-Bossier Port to secure business in Germany (Benteler) and I worked with the Port of S. Louisiana, Port of Lake Charles, Port of New Orleans and others to secure business.  Bossier is strong, in part, due to the presence of BRF and the Ark-La-Tex serving as a medical hub, with one of the State’s only two teaching hospitals training doctors.  I have been very active in promoting the emerging field of life sciences in Louisiana. Without question, I was fortunate to observe the elements that drive the Bossier economy, and use those strategies at the State level. 

Comparisons Between Local and State Economic Development:

In what ways does economic development at the state level differ from your experiences at the local level with the Bossier Chamber of Commerce/GBEDF?

This is unique, in that it’s often said that all economic development is local.  In truth, the fundamentals are no different when it comes to working with projects.  What’s different is the complexity of what LED is responsible for at the state level.  As a way of thinking of this, a focus on one parish can be clear. A focus on 64 Parishes, north and south, east and west, can be far more challenging.  This is a challenge that is indeed complex, and one where I found both great success and tremendous satisfaction.  

Are there unique challenges or opportunities that you encountered in LED that were distinct from your time in Bossier City?

I served side by side with Mayor George Dement, during a tremendous 16-year period of growth in Bossier and NWLA, that has continued almost non-stop to this day.  We took Bossier Parish Community College from Airline Drive to the beautiful campus that Bossier enjoys today on E. Texas Street.  We bolstered the tourism economy by securing three casino operations.  We added industry at the Caddo-Bossier Port and Ruben White Industrial Park.  These lessons were instructive in that success is best achieved by a strong portfolio, one that includes education and training, ports and capacity for industrial location and expansion.  Many of the same elements are present, just on a different scale.  

Collaboration and Partnerships:

Economic development often involves collaboration with various stakeholders. How did you foster partnerships between public and private entities to promote economic growth in Louisiana? Were there specific collaborations or partnerships that you consider particularly impactful during your tenure?

Partnerships are fundamental, and really the key to success in economic development.  As the state, you have the capacity to provide resources that can bring great assistance to ‘partner organizations.’  LED participates with regional economic development organizations, ports, chambers, and others with financial assistance, guidance, navigating other state agencies (DEQ, DOTD, etc).  Certainly, playing a strong role in both investing and providing a platform for performance with your partners goes a long way toward a productive relationship.  That’s said, we are also vigilant about reasonable and appropriate use of public funds.  You don’t demand respect, you earn it.  I believe that LED is known for being fair and requiring that all parties contribute to success.  We want to leverage public dollars, invest them, and require accountability.  I am proud that during my tenure, LED was not caught up in controversial issues or legal consequences coming from audits of our agency.  

I am particularly proud of our partnerships with universities, such as LSU-S, Grambling, LA Tech and Bossier Parish Community College, to name a few.  Of course, our partnership provided significant resources to the North Louisiana Economic Partnership, and other Regional EDOs around the state.  Our LED partnership with the Caddo-Bossier Port has supported Pratt Industries, Benteler Steel, Ternium and other port tenants in NWLA.  I am proud of our military partnerships that significantly supported Department of Defense investments in Louisiana.  Certainly, Barksdale Forward and the Louisiana Military Advisory Council (LMAC) supported strategically important developments critical to the future success of Barksdale Air Force Base. 

Can you highlight some notable economic development projects or initiatives that you were involved in during your time as LED Secretary?  How do you believe these projects contributed to the overall economic landscape of Louisiana?

Key areas of success:   

Information Technology and Cyber Security:  LED fostered tremendous growth in building Louisiana’s information technology footprint in recent years.   IBM, General Dynamic Information Technology, DXC, CGI and many others contributed to this impressive growth through strong LED partnerships.  LED invested on many campus locations across the state.  Louisiana is succeeding in the information technology sector, not just a growth sector, but here it’s a growth sector with an established workforce pipeline. 

Energy:  The Louisiana “all of the above” approach to energy development brought in major investments from Exxon, Shell and many other notable energy companies.  Renewables joined the mix with Solar One’s $1.2 Billion investment.  Billions of dollars invested in Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals now grow our Louisiana GDP and provide global energy security. Louisiana’s leadership role in energy is strong and continues to evolve with carbon capture and sequestration.

Advanced Chemical Manufacturing:  Louisiana’s pipelines, ports and abundant energy resources make Louisiana an ideal setting for chemical production of all types.  From fertilizer to plastics, Louisiana produces a wide array of products, at a global scale.  Many of these companies expanded significantly in recent years, making investments that will power our economy for decades to come, and serve global markets for decades to come.  Companies like ShinTech, SASOL, Lotte Chemical and are just a few of the companies that LED partnered with to bring billions of investment dollars to Louisiana.

Small and emerging businesses:  Competing for, and winning more than $100 million in federal dollars was a significant accomplishment that few are aware of, as these awards tend to get lost in the media, but are truly significant from an economic development perspective. Much of the focus with these funds are targeted to support for small businesses, entrepreneurship and venture capital.  In addition to the federal awards mentioned, LED secured $113 Million from the US Treasury through a strong and focused effort. Our State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) will have a tremendous impact over the coming years. 

The list goes on, see the LED Annual report for all the details.

Outlook and Future Plans:

Now that you’ve concluded your role as LED Secretary, what are your reflections on the economic development landscape in Louisiana, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

Louisiana will continue to enjoy amazing success in economic development.  Louisiana’s pipelines, ports and abundant energy resources make Louisiana an ideal setting for chemical production and we’ll continue to be market leaders. It’s notable that we are rapidly gaining in the support elements around electric vehicle battery production.  The challenge that lies ahead is to continue to build the pipeline of workers for tomorrow, through education (from Pre-K to graduate work, with a special emphasis on certificate programs).  Another challenge is the deferred infrastructure maintenance ($15 Billion for roads, bridges, ports, airports etc) in Louisiana.  This challenge is staggering and represents a real threat to our economic growth and success. 

Do you have any plans or aspirations for your future career in the realm of economic development or related fields?

Improving Louisiana and successful engagement in economic development has been my life’s work.  With 16 years of experience in Bossier, and 19 at the State level, I have served in leadership roles in economic development for 35 years.   Having developed a great deal of knowledge, experience and understanding of how to be successful in engaging projects and having statewide, domestic and international relationships, I am confident that there will be some very interesting ‘win-win’ conversations in the future that will lead me to some important accomplishments in 2024 and beyond.  I am not signing off, I am transitioning to a more focused role, with challenging projects in sectors where I can bring value.    

Advice for Local Economic Development Leaders, today and tomorrow?

This is a complex question that should have a very lengthy response.  However, I can narrow my response down and suggest a “top three.”   First, get your education and certifications in economic development.  Economic development is an emerging field that continues to evolve.  Having your certification and remaining engaged in the evolving field demonstrates to clients, consultants, and your organizational leadership that you can be trusted to perform at the highest levels.

Second, focus on finances.  After a decade of low interest rates, future projects may require more creative approaches to support success. Bond financing, available state and federal programs are becoming critical elements of securing a project ‘win’.  If you have more knowledge and capacity than your competition, you’ll significantly enhance your chances of a ‘win’.  Finance is a big part of our projects, and one that will only become more competitive in the future. 

Finally, all successful projects enter a Parish.  Our economic development efforts can only be as strong as our relationships with elected officials at all levels.  Many young economic development professionals have not fully grasped the importance of a strong working relationship with local elected officials.  The Parish President, mayors, representatives, and senators have a great deal of influence on successful economic development outcomes.  Those economic development leaders that don’t recognize the importance of these relationships will not succeed in the long term.

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