03/27/2015 07:55AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
Gallery: Uniting Acadiana [2 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Lisa Hanchey
When Jason El Koubi moved from Baton Rouge to Lafayette in 2013 to assume the helm as president and CEO of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, he spent his first few months polling community leaders concerning what they thought was the most important issue for Acadiana. Over and over again, he heard the same response: “We need to work together as a region.”
Heeding the call, GLCC, with El Koubi as chair, created The Campaign for One Acadiana, a 5-year, $15 million regional economic development initiative serving nine Acadiana parishes – Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion. “We know that if one parish in our Acadiana region succeeds, then the other parishes succeed, and if one parish misses out on opportunity, then all of the parishes miss out,” El Koubi explains. “So, in short, we’re all in it together. If we present a united front on those issues, the message that we deliver to the state legislature and in Washington, D.C. is going to be more compelling, and we will have greater success politically.”
The Campaign’s goal is to make Acadiana one of the premier regions in the South offering great career opportunities in an idyllic family environment. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to create an urban environment that’s attractive to a rising generation of young professionals and for folks, including empty-nesters, who are looking for a more walkable community and a safe, attractive urban space,” El Koubi says. “And, we want to make sure that the gateways into our regional core, whether from the interstate or the airport, are attractive and tell the story of a region that has a strong pride of place, a vibrant culture and economic dynamism.”
To reach its financial target, the Campaign plans to raise $3 million per year for five years, for a total of $15 million. In February, it reached its initial goal of $3 million through a group of more than 120 investors. Major investors include the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, South Louisiana Community College and University of Louisiana at Lafayette, along with several businesses and individual investors. “The response that we have received from our region has been tremendously positive,” El Koubi says. “We now have more than 120 investors who are contributing to the campaign, and who have committed their leadership and financial investment to this initiative.”
Formulating A Strategy
At the outset, the Campaign formed a 75-member board of directors consisting of representatives from area chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, major companies and small businesses in the nine-parish region. During a January retreat, the board developed three strategies: cultivating a portfolio of regional assets, infrastructure and policies; marketing and selling our region to businesses and professional talent, and revitalizing our region’s core, including downtown Lafayette, UL and the gateways into Acadiana.
Completion Of 1-49 South
Among the Campaign’s priorities is the completion of I-49 South, a project that has spent years in the works but put on perpetual hold. “One of the biggest opportunities our region has not only to improve its quality of life, but to unleash additional economic growth, is to complete I-49 South,” El Koubi says. “To accomplish that, we are going to develop a specific strategy for moving forward. And, we are going to advance that strategy in partnership with elected officials, business leaders and partner organizations along the corridor, not just here in Acadiana, but across the entire corridor that will benefit from this new infrastructure investment in our future.”
The I-49 initiative is particularly important to Campaign board member Sue Soileau Brignac, president of Washington State Bank. When the interstate came through St. Landry Parish in the 1980s, her family’s property was literally severed in half. But, instead of boudé-ing about it, Brignac saw it as an opportunity. “My father was somewhat dismayed by the interstate’s cutting through our property,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well Dad, at one time, Washington thrived because of the steamboat traffic and, at another time, because of the railroad. So now, we have the ability to capture and embrace the economic opportunity of the 18-wheeler.”
Since then, Brignac has been actively involved in her community’s economic development, serving as a member of St. Landry Parish Economic Industrial Development District for over 30 years. When approached to join Campaign for One Acadiana, she immediately jumped onboard. “When this idea of One Acadiana was introduced to me, I completely embraced it,” she says. “My company and myself personally have invested in the campaign, because I believe it exemplifies an incredible business strategy that is very results-driven. We need to develop a core of businesses that work together. What I call it is Acadiana’s ability to ‘transformationally ascend.’”
Attracting A Trained Workforce
Another challenge for the region is attracting a trained workforce. To meet this goal, the Campaign plans to work with higher learning institutions including UL, SLCC and Louisiana State University-Eunice, as well as public school districts and private schools. Additionally, the board plans to hire a full-time professional to recruit talent for hard-to-fill positions. “What we are going to do is build a service that will work in partnership with businesses who are trying to recruit professionals here to help provide good information and service that helps sell our region in terms of the residential options, education options and quality of life amenities,” El Koubi explains. “This service will provide customized information to help people choose Acadiana for their careers. “
The Campaign also hopes to lure Acadiana natives back home. During major events and festivals such as Mardi Gras and Festival International, the initiative will host Welcome Home events. “When people who grew up in this area come home to visit their families or to go one of our major festivals, they will have the opportunity to hear the story of our progress and the opportunities that are available here today, so that they can consider coming home and becoming a part of the exciting progress that we are making as a region,” El Koubi says.
Another big priority for the Campaign is business development. Except for Acadiana, all the major regions along the I-10 corridor – Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and New Orleans -- have local economic development professionals to market their region, generate leads and develop sites. “Most of our economic development efforts in Acadiana today are really just based in individual parishes and have a single person doing that job,” El Koubi explains. “The capacity for any individual parish to reach its full potential is really limited without a strong regional effort that not only supports each individual parish, but also markets the region collectively. So, we are going to build a very strong business development team to serve the nine-parish region and to work in close partnership with those local economic development leaders.”
Collective Support Is Needed
But, board members realize that they cannot take on this task without the support of the entire nine-parish region. So, the Campaign plans to host regular discussions with chamber chairs, business executives and economic development leaders from each parish. “We want to make sure that each parish’s local priorities are included the overall plan for the region,” El Koubi says. “And, we want to ensure that as we begin to implement our regional initiative, we are doing a good job of coordinating and communicating with those other important leaders in our progress as a region.”