New Orleans area business leaders targeting advanced manufacturing opportunities

Regional business leaders are setting their sights in the year ahead on developing and growing local opportunities in advanced manufacturing, an industry that could employ skilled and well-paid workers.

That was the takeaway Monday from Greater New Orleans Inc.’s annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency hotel. The regional economic development group’s incoming chairwoman, Tara Hernandez, told more than 1,000 business leaders and city officials that the group’s efforts would include leveraging existing partnerships or entering new ones to create jobs in that sector.

Hernandez, president of JCH Development, a local real estate development firm that specializes in converting underutilized real estate into residential, commercial and mixed-use redevelopment projects, rattled off a few area employers that could help reach that objective, including Bollinger Shipyards, agricultural giant Monsanto and defense contractor Textron.

The group’s efforts align with ProsperityNOLA, a five-year strategic road map that the city unveiled in 2013 for creating new jobs in key areas targeted for potential growth, including advanced manufacturing.

“With our vast number of existing employers in our region, from food production to petrochemicals, we aim to support the continued growth of these industries,” Hernandez said.

The bulk of the discussion was largely a recounting of the area’s business wins last year.

Among the highlights from GNO Inc. President and CEO Michael Hecht: The return of transatlantic service to New Orleans’ airport. That begins next month, when British Airways launches nonstop flights to and from London, which Hecht called “a total game-changer.”

German airline Condor will begin seasonal service to Frankfurt in May.

With recent gains, the local airport now offers nonstop service to 60 destinations. “These are record numbers like we’ve never seen at our airport,” Hecht said. “It’s an incredible turnaround story.”

Hecht also noted that the metro area added more than $8.5 billion worth of new projects last year, which will bring about 280 direct and 801 indirect jobs to the region.

The bulk of that comes from Washington, D.C.-based Venture Global LNG’s decision to build an $8.5 billion facility to liquefy and export natural gas along the west bank of Plaquemines Parish, which was unveiled late last year.

The project, which was been in the works since late 2014, is Venture Global’s second LNG export facility proposed in Louisiana, joining a $4.5 billion Cameron Parish project that is under development.

If it’s built, the Plaquemines facility will create 250 jobs that pay an average annual salary of $70,000 plus benefits, the company said.

Another initiative that’s on the horizon that Hecht said will “turbocharge” the region’s economy: The long-discussed addition of passenger train service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, although the project’s timeline is unclear.

“It is not high speed, it is not light rail, it’s regular rail,” he said. “It’s going to go 80 mph, it’s going to have internet, it’s going to have alcohol, and you’re going to like it.”

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