By Greg LaRose
City Council members say they are pleased with the New Orleans Business Alliance’s efforts to attract and retain employers and retailers, but they aren’t satisfied yet with its results, noting the city still needs more retail choices and development in areas outside of downtown.During a hearing Wednesday (Nov. 4) focusing on the mayor’s office budget for 2016, council members discussed whether NOLABA should be the face of the city in crafting incentive packages, leading site selection and driving development projects, much like other economic development entities. They also questioned whether the alliance has enough separation from the mayor’s office to take a lead role in business recruitment and retention.
Although the Landrieu administration’s chief of staff said the alliance has sufficient autonomy, council members told NOLABA executive director Quentin Messer they need his organization to have an authoritative voice.
“You should be the more independent entity telling us what we need to do better to create a healthier climate for businesses,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said.
When the vision for NOLABA was formed in the years after Hurricane Katrina, the public-private partnership was touted as a way to distance politics from the process of attracting businesses to New Orleans. Until that point, the city’s economic development functions were largely confined to doling out grants to individuals and small businesses with limited accountability in the selection or performance of recipients.
Business sector contributions helped established the framework of NOLABA, but it wasn’t until Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office that its formal functions were defined and its operations backed with an existing tax-supported economic development fund.
Since then, the mayor’s office has remained very much involved with economic development matters. Councilwoman Susan Guidry pointed out Wednesday that there were just three employees in the mayor’s economic development team when the alliance was formed, and now there are seven.
“When we created the New Orleans Business Alliance, I think our idea was to move economic development pretty much out of City Hall and into an agency that would be more independent, nimble …” Guidry said, noting the increase in city employees. “It seems that we’re keeping quite a bit of it in City Hall.”
Landrieu’s chief of staff Brooke Smith said the staffing levels are needed because the “role and work of incentives continues to fall on the city,” explaining that the administration must oversee city resources and determine which tax breaks and enticements are appropriate, in coordination with the City Council and NOLABA.
Rebecca Conwell, the mayor’s senior adviser for economic development, told the council she sees NOLABA as the city’s “muscle and expertise” in attracting and keeping businesses, whereas her role involves representing the city’s interests when deals are brought to the table.
Messer acknowledged that NOLABA isn’t directly involved with setting policy, but it is focused on corporate attraction in three main areas: retail, creative digital media and bio innovation.
Other city departments and regional organizations agencies carry out the project-specific tasks that bring businesses to New Orleans, he said.
The Industrial Development Board, for example, approves major tax incentives for large-scale projects. Greater New Orleans Inc., which Messer said has a larger marketing budget, often lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the city. Louisiana Economic Development, where he worked before coming to NOLABA in July, contributes to site selection.
Councilman Jason Williams asked Smith directly whether the mayor’s office provided NOLABA and Messer with the autonomy necessary to do their jobs well. Smith said it did, noting it was the alliance that set the target areas for business recruitment.
“I just want to make sure that if you have a quarterback on the field, he’s got to feel free to audible. He’s got to know that if he says something, it’s going to be backed up by the administration,” Williams said “It’s a difficult job to do unless the autonomy is there to really do it.”
Smith said the only thing she would ask Messer not to do is commit taxpayer dollars to incentives before checking with the administration.
Councilwoman Stacy Head built on a Messer analogy in which he compared NOLABA in jest with a dating service that hopes to entice businesses to move to and stay in New Orleans.
She explained the City Council’s role in economic development includes shaping policy to improve the business climate, and its members are counting on NOLABA to inform its agenda. Without that that input, New Orleans cannot remedy what makes it unattractive to business, Head said, comparing the city to a man who uses a dating service to tout all of his strengths but hides his flaws.
“You’re trying to get him a date with all these women from around the country and some women who are here, and you can’t figure out why this man can’t get a date,” Head said “Then you realize this man doesn’t have any teeth and the women who you are trying to recruit like teeth. You need to tell your client, the man, that he needs to get teeth.
“You need to tell us what we need to do to become more attractive to the businesses out there, so that when you make that connection between the city — the man with no teeth — and the women who are looking for a date, it’s a positive interaction.”