New Orleans touts its new status as a "brain magnet"

Published: Feb. 1, 2013 at 8:45 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2013 at 2:00 AM CST
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A construction worker at the site of the city's new biomedical research center
A construction worker at the site of the city's new biomedical research center

New Orleans, La.- After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the rebuilding effort transformed that city into one of America's economic powerhouses.

In 1906, a massive earthquake rocked San Francisco, crushing gas pipes and igniting fires that consumed much of the city.

Following "The Great Shake," San Francisco arose from the rubble.

Ninety-nine years later, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans marinated for weeks.

Water logged and already declining before the storm, critics said this city was doomed.

No phoenix rises from water, or so they said.

This week, the celebration over the NFL's championship game is partly a coming out party for a city proclaiming its own renaissance.

"There is nowhere in the United States where you can do more, for less and get a better return than the in the post-Katrina New Orleans," said Michael Hecht, who heads GNO Inc.

In a downtown skyscraper, empty desks tell one story of revival.

Over the next few years, GE Capital will fill the space with 300 people, who will design software for the company's new technology center.

"One of the reasons that we came to New Orleans is what we saw happening on the ground here," said Mike De Boer, GE Capital Chief Information Officer.

De Boer believes GE is in on the early stages as a tech community sprouts in New Orleans.

Gameloft chose the city for its second U.S. studio, where 150 new hires design mobile video games. declared New Orleans the No. 1 "brain magnet" in the country in 2011.

De Boer concedes "a lot of people ask me, 'why New Orleans?' And I'm like why not?"

On a giant construction site sandwiched between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue, cranes tower over the city's biomedical research center under construction.

Statewide, the list of job creators includes Sasol, the energy giant that picked southwestern Louisiana for a giant plant to convert natural gas to liquid.

The state Department of Economic estimates the Sasol project will generate 7,000 direct and indirect jobs with a total investment of $16 billion to $20 billion.

"This project will be roughly eight to ten times the size of a major auto plant," said Stephen Moret, head of Louisiana Economic Development.

LED estimates, over the last five years, Louisiana has scored 63,000 new jobs, making it one of only five states to have more jobs now than before the 2008 U.S. financial crisis.

But, wait a minute. This is Louisiana, where business surveys and studies over the decades consistently showed the state was a perpetual cellar dweller in economic development.

Hecht argues in the old culture, New Orleans and Louisiana competed against Mississippi, celebrating being conservative instead of innovative.

"That culture, I think, has really been shaken up."

Some of it amounts to simple math.

GNO Inc estimates setting up shot in New Orleans can be 35-40% cheaper than in New York or San Francisco.

Under Governor Bobby Jindal, the state wiped out a host of business taxes, including the sales tax companies used to pay when they bought manufacturing equipment.

Some of the post-Katrina questions about New Orleans-- whether people could even live here-- have been largely answered with $14 billion in new hurricane defenses.

However, this unique place faces unique challenges.

"New Orleans is really a victim of its own marketing in some cases," said Todd Rossnagel, Manager of Media Services at LED FastStart, the state's highly-rating job training program.

For example, Rossnagel said a Google search for "New Orleans" will produce extremes, lots of fun activities or a very negative view.

"There was really nothing in between that said New Orleans is a really fantastic place where me and my family can thrive."

To peal away some of the mysteries about New Orleans, LED FastStart created an online video for professionals considering relocating their families here.

Rossnagel said that people around the country often wondered is New Orleans normal?

"They have this image of New Orleans being this really quirky, fun place to visit, but do you have to live in a shotgun house?"

From 1960 to 2005, New Orleans suffered what Moret calls a "steady decline in jobs, population, national reputation, significance."

Even those charged with recruiting new companies concede part of the revival stems from $150 billion in government and insurance money that flowed to the Gulf Coast following Katrina.

"The real question going forward is, as the Katrina money gets spent down, as we approach the 10th anniversary and as our energy sort of naturally attenuates, are we going to be able to sustain this remarkable progress going forward?" Hecht said.

He believes the city must develop what he calls a "critical mass" of companies and workers to make the growth last.

The oil bust 30 years ago ripped away a facade, exposing an economy with few real strengths.

"What is different about the current boom is it is intentional," Hecht said. "We're building it from the ground up."