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February 22, 2020

Our Views: At GNO Inc., economic development isn’t just about attracting companies any more

Greater New Orleans Inc. has always been about promoting economic development in the metro area. Its stated goal until now has been to create wealth and jobs in the region.

That’s still central to the group’s agenda, but its newly unveiled mission statement casts the underlying aim of economic development more broadly. The central goal of GNO Inc., it says, is now to “create a region with a thriving economy, and an excellent quality of life, for everyone.”

This is a healthy approach, one that recognizes that the work of producing a healthy business climate doesn’t just rely on incentives and other traditional tools, but also on building a better community. And it highlights the importance of making sure the benefits of growth are widely accessible.

Michael Hecht, the group’s president and CEO, describes the new mission as the result of an evolution in approach.

“Transactional” tools will always be in the mix, he says. Tax breaks and other direct incentives to companies seeking to locate here can level the playing field versus other suitors, help spur a new sector such as tech, and correct for quirks or deficiencies in the law or tax code.

Both incentives alone don’t produce a sustainable model to attract investment. What does, Hecht argues, is creating a good business environment.

That means emphasizing not just recruitment but also workforce training; offering good schools, infrastructure and transportation; and even ensuring the city has an appealing brand. It also means focusing on public policy in areas that are only indirectly connected to attracting companies.

To that end, GNO Inc. has joined coalitions to advocate for everything from criminal justice reform to more spending on early education. There are business benefits to both, Hecht points out, including cost savings from lower incarceration rates and preparation of the next generation of workers. And in both cases, Hecht says, doing the “smart thing” is also doing the right thing.

The approach also puts a premium on inclusivity, so that locals have the awareness, training and networking opportunities to get hired. Hecht rattled off some success stories already on the books on that front, including the partnership between GE Digital and the University of New Orleans to train future employees. The relationship has given the company’s local office a reputation for low cost and high diversity and productivity, he says.

And one study ranked the area’s growing tech sector is ranked seventh for women in tech jobs per capita, and fifth for African-Americans.

Business development is important on its own, but it’s even more vital when it can help address a region’s underlying challenges. And the more people any economic development win can touch, the better.

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