In 2008 the RPA (Regional Planning Administration) published a report and website entitled ‘America 2050’. The report centered around the idea of emerging American megaregions and centralizing information about each region in one place to be used by developers and politicians when crafting public policy. Their goal was to spark conversation and debate, but over the past seven years the debate they sought to spark has been sidelined by greater national debates about healthcare and racism (two very important issues). Of the megaregions covered by the RPA, the Gulf Coast Megaregion is one I’d like to focus on in particular.
Principal Cities: Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge
Population 2010: 13,414,934Percent of U.S. Population: 4%
Population 2025: 16,334,987Population 2050: 23,666,122Projected Growth (2010 – 2050): 76.4% (10,251,188)2005 GDP: $524,122,000,000
Percent of US GDP: 4%
Houston stands as the largest city in the region while New Orleans and Baton Rouge are not-closely behind in second and third respectively. Respectably the Gulf Coast Region contains a large size of the nations GDP and population, not to mention it is closely located to even larger regions such as the Atlantic Piedmont (Atlanta-Charlotte-Raleigh-Nashville), Florida, and the Texas Triangle (in the case of Houston it overlaps). The Gulf Coasts geographic position, large oil reserves, and economic potential makes it poised for significant growth in the 21st century. What is most disappointing about this megaregion is that it has so much potential that simply isn’t being harnessed. The economic growth potential of this entire region is tremendous. This is potential growth I have had the opportunity of seeing and experiencing. It might not be as obvious as other Southern megaregions, but it is present along the Gulf Coast.
The most obvious potential surrounds the two cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. One the current political capital and the other Louisiana’s historic and cultural capital. Baton Rouge has always been the ‘second city’, but in a post Katrina world the changes that would have taken a half century to occur have been fast tracked. It is very possible that through harnessing the talent, creativity, and natural advantages of its surrounding area, Baton Rouge could become Louisiana’s true capital city. Katrina ushered massive growth for the Capital region and it can be seen in pure population statistics. The population of East Baton Rouge Parish, according to the 2010 U.S. Census is 440,171 persons, while that of Orleans Parish was just 379,000 people. While New Orleans still is larger than Baton Rouge from a metropolitan area perspective, Baton Rouge is not far behind. Combined, the two metropolitan areas, and smaller surrounding metro areas have a population of roughly 2 million residents. For comparison Houston’s is 6 million people and Tampa 4 million. The ports of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Louisiana which are all located adjacent to each other outpace any other American port in terms of tonnage and trade. With such a large regional population, envious geographic position on the Mississippi River, and cultural beauty why isn’t the population larger and the economy more robust?
The economy of Baton Rouge and New Orleans are largely reliant on natural resources, tourism, and politics. Things are slowly changing; the introduction of IBM in Baton Rouge, growth of small startups in New Orleans, and the continued growth of mid-sized companies like Lamar advertising are contributing to an economy that is diversifying. With the right policies put in place that encourage the growth of small business and make it easier for larger companies to set up shop in the state could all go a long way in continuing this diversification. Louisiana would be able to attract (and retain) younger people to these cities; investing in the long-term future of the state. In addition to a slowly growing white collar industry in the state, healthcare’s future seems bright. The new VA Medical Center in Downtown New Orleans is a shinning beacon to a future that might be. Baton Rouge will be the first city in the state with a specific Medical District, it has the distinction of potentially being one of the largest in the south. The district includes two universities (LSU and Our Lady of the Lake College), two major hospitals, a planned children’s hospital, multiple research facilities, and private medical clinics. Establishing this area as its own district opens the door for further growth and will allow the city to continue to attract more high-skilled individuals, expanding the city’s workforce and overall wealth. Thanks to Governor Fosters tax breaks for the film industry have led to Louisiana now leading internationally in film production. Louisiana must capitalize on this unique industry. Given the size of Celtic Studios it makes sense for the state to attempt to centralize the film industry in Baton Rouge. The Capital Region has the space and state wide connections to make logical sense, not to mention Baton Rouge is already making more films than New Orleans and Shreveport. *UPDATE* The State Legislature recently requested Baton Rouge be designated as a center for TV and Film Production like Shreveport and New Orleans; this is a step in the right direction for centralizing the industry in Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge and New Orleans combined are home to multiple universities and stand alone as the true higher educational centers for Louisiana. Baton Rouge is home to the states premier public university; LSU, and New Orleans is home to the states two leading private universities; Loyola and Tulane. Higher education should be a priority for the state of Louisiana. All major cities, nationally and globally, have a strong higher education presence. The state already has a firm backbone, but more can be done to strengthen Louisiana’s position. I propose the construction of three new universities. The first would be The Louisiana Institute of Technology; a tech based university with high standards and quality programs and degrees. The second would be the renovation of BRCC into Baton Rouge College, a public, exclusively liberal arts college. The final would be the LSU School of Medicine; a medical specific school in the Baton Rouge Health District. The addition of these schools would increase the attractiveness of Louisiana as a place to study for students around the nation. It would have the added benefit of strengthening our economic appeal to industry’s other than energy and oil.
Louisiana should be a more prosperous state, a richer state, a better state. It has the potential, the people, the culture, now it needs the leaders. There is a lot that must be done before Louisiana’s full potential can be harnessed into an American center of medicine, education, technology, shipping and trade, and culture, but it can be done. With ambition and leadership Baton Rouge and New Orleans can make the Gulf Coast megaregion on of the most important in the United States. The Gulf Coast region spreads from Corpus-Christi to Pensacola and contains bustling ports, beautiful beaches, and rich culture. From the ambition of Houston, to the vibrancy of New Orleans, to the creativity of Seaside, the Gulf Coast offers so much to America and the world. To further connect this region and unleash its wider potential, it is vital passenger rail becomes a part of any long-term regional development plan. Passenger rail lines must connect all the major cities of the region together into an easy to use network, increasing cross cultural and economic collaboration. The potential of this region and Louisiana individually is great, but it can only be exploited with the right kind of public policy; from education to urban planning, all elements that define great civilizations must work in tandem to transform this region.