Bearing gifts for local programs and preaching free-market gospel, former Louisiana 4th District congressman John Fleming made his first trip back to the state since taking office in March as head of the Economic Development Administration in the Trump administration.
The EDA and Greater New Orleans Inc. announced on Wednesday that the federal agency will grant $950,000 to the GNO program that brings together private sector companies and higher education institutions to tailor courses for specific job needs.
Dubbed GNOu, the program will receive the funding over three years and will get matching dollars totaling $353,590 from eight local businesses that benefit from it: Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Dow Inc., Gallo Mechanical, Laitram, the Port of New Orleans, Palmisano, Gibbs Construction and Postlethwaite & Netterville.
The EDA is a relatively little-known bureau within the Department of Commerce, where Fleming filled the role of assistant secretary for economic development after that post was left unfilled for two years under President Donald Trump.
The agency has a relatively modest annual budget of $260 million, but this year and last year that has been augmented by an additional $600 million a year in funds earmarked to relieve the impact of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the wildfires in California, and various other natural disasters. It was out of this latter money that the GNO education grant has been allocated.
Fleming also went over to Terrebonne Parish on Wednesday to announce a $1.3 million grant for infrastructure spending at Houma-Terrebonne Airport to support an Unmanned Aviation System facility. That grant will be matched with $337,500 in local funds for a project that will allow deployment of drones in the oil and gas industry, as well as facilitate research into drones by Nicholls State University.
After two months in the role, Fleming said he sees the federal government’s job at EDA as one of greasing the wheels of private industry.
“I view EDA’s role as one of giving guidance and leadership to wise investment into America, into blighted areas that may be affected or hurt in some way,” he said. “As a conservative, I’m quite skeptical the government can do that by itself. I think the private sector and the marketplace can do a much better job than we can, but I think we can be a valuable partner.”
He is a fan particularly of the Opportunity Zones program that was part of Trump’s $1.5 billion tax cut package in 2017.
He believes this effort, which had support from high-profile Democrats as well as Republicans, can be effective in driving investment in real estate rehabilitation and business development to the qualifying 8,700 census tracts across the country. But he is among those who believe there should be a system in place to monitor the program to ensure the money is having the intended effect and does not end up being another tax giveaway.
“If we have some projects that turn out to get bad results, that could hurt this new way of thinking, this new approach,” Fleming said.
To this end, Fleming said the EDA is working with the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business to develop a data-driven map that will track investment in the Opportunity Zones and the results they achieve. Important benchmarks will include job creation, curbing population depletion in deprived areas, and an overall improvement in economic growth in the area.
The EDA has made specific efforts to promote Opportunity Zones, including last year making the designation one of its four categories that qualifies an area to be eligible for an EDA grant — the other categories being an area with high unemployment, having low per capita income or being hit by a natural disaster.
Last week, Fleming said he made Opportunity Zones one of the EDA’s five “priority investments” to bring further attention to their investment potential.
“The value we bring as an agency is in how we attract, pinpoint and scope private-sector dollars into distressed areas,” he said, noting that EDA’s traditional investments usually are matched dollar-for-dollar by local funding and then attract private funding at a 15-to-1 ratio. “With OZ funding, that could easily go to 30-to-1, or 50-to-1, or 300-to-one. We could see that leverage power increase dramatically.”
The EDA role will be to look for infrastructure investments, like the New Orleans educational funding or the Terrebonne-Houma Airport funding, and hope that brings in considerably more private money.
“We make the down payment, if you will,” Fleming said, “but where the rubber meets the road is in attracting private investment dollars.”
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