Lafayette Chamber Hosts "Building Community" Conference - KLFY News 10

Lafayette Chamber Hosts "Building Community" Conference

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The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce is hosting the 2014 "Building Community Conference" in New Orleans this week.  Business leaders are working with representatives of every sector of the Acadiana community to identify the major needs and issues facing our area and brainstorm solutions.  The Chamber has identified four major areas of concern to focus on during this year's conference:  regionalism, public education, workforce development and transportation infrastructure.  Conference organizers invited panelists from all over the state, particularly New Orleans, to discuss how their communities have successfully solved many of the issues now facing the greater Lafayette area.

  First up?  Regionalism.  Conference panelists generally defined regionalism as a move among geographically adjacent cities, parishes and even states to consider themselves colleagues, rather than competitors, when it comes to luring new business to the area, creating jobs and sharing resources and funding.  New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told attendees that the regionalism concept was key to the rebuilding effort following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Landrieu told the Lafayette group that communities ranging from New Orleans to Covington to Houma teamed up to speak as a collective voice to Washington to get the desperately needed federal aid for rebuilding homes and businesses in and around the Crescent City.  Landrieu said the same approach could be a powerful economic development tool for the greater Lafayette area.  A number of local business leaders attending the conference said regionalism was a major component of recent efforts to diversity Lafayette's economy by expanding the local medical and healthcare industry base in our area, which has seen explosive growth in just the past decade.  Currently, three billion dollars is being invested in the "medical corridor" represented by the "super region" running along I-10 from Lafayette to New Orleans, with an expected 30,000 new jobs in that field to be created within the next few years.
   
  Attendees next tackled the topic of public education.  While all of those attending identified the need to improve the Lafayette Parish School System, there were widely divergent opinions offered on how best to achieve that goal.  Many attendees pointed to deep divisions among the members of the Lafayette Parish School Board as contributing to the gridlock in the effort to find solutions, along with the ongoing tensions between the board and Lafayette School Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper.  Another particularly divisive topic was the issue of charter schools, and whether they enhance the educational offerings of a community or erode funding and public trust in parish public schools. Public education panelists, including Rayne Martin of Stand for Children Louisiana and Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, argued that there is a place for both entities in the effort to improve student achievement and enhance the next generation's educational experience.

   The public education session segued into the next discussion on workforce development, with virtually all attendees in agreement that a strong public school system in a particular parish or region was the single most crucial factor in assuring that a skilled, educated workforce would be available to fill the new jobs created by economic growth and development.  A panel chaired by Dr. Natalie Harder, Chancellor of South Louisiana Community College, detailed the huge strides created by the new "dual enrollment" programs now underway in a number of communities.  Dual enrollment allows a student to simultaneously earn both a high school diploma and a college associate's degree on graduation day, propelling that student into the workforce with all the education and skills needed to build a successful career.  Business leaders in attendance pointed to that same successful program as a major tool in economic development, as companies representing every aspect of business from retail to manufacturing to service providers will choose to locate or expand in a particular community only if a ready and skilled workforce is available.

   The final focus area of the conference was transportation infrastructure, especially as it pertains to a question that has perplexed so many in our area:  How do we find funding to finish I-49?  

  The I-49 South Corridor would link the Acadiana and New Orleans regions, and would provide a number of benefits, including enhanced hurricane evacuation, improvements to traffic congestion in Lafayette and economic development possibilities for companies located not only along the corridor, but on its eastern and western edges. But the problem of funding has stymied most efforts to get it built.  Panelists in both the main session and in smaller break-out sessions explored possibilities, ranging from making a section of the corridor a toll road, to establishing a TIF district to provide ongoing funding for maintenance, to public-private partnerships.  All attendees agreed on one point, however:  the project will not reach fruition until all sectors of the Acadiana community identify the I-49 South project as the number one priority for our area.  

Tuesday's sessions will explore the importance of community planning and will update participants on the Lafayette Master Plan, a comprehensive blueprint for continued "smart growth" for our area.  The Master Plan first began to take shape at the Chamber's 2011 "Building Community" conference which hosted the initial project charette.  Now, three years later, conference attendees will get an advance look at action items on the final comprehensive plan and will learn how everyone in the community can participate in and benefit from the initiative.

  For more information on how you can get involved in the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, log on to www.business.lafchamber.org


   
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