Study: Focusing on quality-of-life improvements will help Southwest Louisiana boom

By By Lance Traweek / American Press

Southwest Louisiana has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to thrive within an economic boom by focusing on quality-of-life

improvements, said Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting.

Throughout the past year, she has met

with area officials and young professionals to talk about how Southwest

Louisiana can

become more attractive to future generations. On Tuesday, Ryan

presented her findings to the public, giving a strategic plan

for the area.

In her presentation, “Next Generation Southwest Louisiana: A Plan to Enhance and Ensure Our Region’s Quality of Life,” she

said the region is “on the brink of opportunity.”

“Jobs are coming. Industry is coming.

Development is coming. Over $40 billion worth of it,” she said in her

report. “This

creates a true competitive advantage for Southwest Louisiana. By

the time the rest of the United States re-emerges from the

Great Recession, Southwest Louisiana will be several significant

steps ahead.”

She posed the question: Will the economic expansion create a boom-and-bust cycle, or can it be managed in a way that leads

to long-term success?

In her report, Ryan compared Southwest Louisiana to similar regions, including Austin, Texas; Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas;

Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss.; Lafayette; and Mobile, Ala. Based on seven quality-of-life indexes, Southwest Louisiana is leading

its peers in two indexes and behind in three.

According to the results, the area is

winning in cost of lifestyle and quality of education. The region is

tied with the others

in social capital, which measures the community’s diversity, and

it’s also tied with the others for inclusion of people. But

the Southwest Louisiana lags in areas of earning, vitality and

after hours.

To improve in those quality-of-life indexes, Ryan gave five goals to better the region.

The first is to embed quality-of-life

concepts, measures and decisions into development decisions at the

regional, parish

and municipal levels. She said there must be procedures, policies

and people protecting the quality of life. She suggested

each mayor in the region have a “Next Generation Council” — a

group of young professionals who can “help them see the cities

through their lens.” She also said there needs to be young people

on local boards.

The second goal is to “develop vibrant retail districts throughout the region that feature things to do and buy after hours,”

the report reads.

Everyone in Southwest Louisiana needs to be “within a 15-minute drive of something to do after work and

on weekends,” Ryan said.

Ryan mentioned the tax increment

financing plan that failed recently in Lake Charles. She recommended

reintroducing and approving

the TIF for the lakefront and downtown development.

“I know the TIF

just failed here for downtown, but we have to try again,” she said. She

said the property is “just sitting”

underused.

“We have to have places where people can go and gather,” she said. “We have to provide a scene for after 5.”

The third goal is to “help new employees and their families get settled in Southwest Louisiana,” she said in her report. An

influx in new jobs will create an opportunity for the region to face “the social Olympic Games,” she said.

The fourth goal is that Southwest Louisiana needs to be healthy and sustainable. The community needs to be focused on the

environment and the well-being of its people. She recommended expanding the amount of local food used at area restaurants

and becoming a “walk-friendly community.”

She said the region’s parks need to have more accessible trails, be contemporary and pet-friendly. She suggested closing Ryan

Street to traffic one Sunday from April to November and host a “Ride the Ryan” for bicyclists and runners. She brought up

expanding the farmers market and investigating the feasibility of a regional recycling program.

Her fifth goal is to “increase the job

and entrepreneurial opportunities” in the region.

Ryan said this can

be done through diversity. She recommended developing and

supporting a robust internship system to match McNeese State University

and Sowela students with regional businesses. She commended

efforts with the SEED Center to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit.

She also said it’s important that arts and humanities groups

continue to work with economic development groups.

“On a per capita basis, you have some of the most creative people I’ve ever met,” she said. “We solve problems in business

with our head, but we create from a place in our heart. And if you can connect the head and the heart, you have magic.”

Online: www.allianceswla.org