Jefferson stands at key economic juncture

Recent economic development news from Jefferson Parish reveals a diversifying regional economy, with the manufacturing, retail, real estate and service sectors among those investing and creating jobs in the area.

But possible and persistent obstacles must be avoided for the parish to reach its potential.

The $850 million ammonia plant planned for Waggaman indicates the parish offers amenities suitable to the industrial industry: strategic vacant land and proximity to the Mississippi River and complementary businesses.

On what could be considered the opposite end of the spectrum, Smoothie King is moving its corporate headquarters from Covington to Metairie following a transition in ownership. Wan Kim, the sole franchisee for South Korea, has taken over the company from founders Steve and Cindy Kuhnau, who founded the business 40 years ago in Jefferson Parish.

Michael Hecht, CEO of the regional economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc., says Kim selected Jefferson, specifically the Lakeway property at the foot of the Pontchartrain Causeway, because of its central location.

“I think what you’ll find is that businesses see Jefferson as physically being the heart of the region,” Hecht said.

If that’s the case, then retail is the lifeblood pumping through its main arteries. Commercial real estate activity along Veterans Boulevard, Clearview Parkway and Manhattan Boulevard is fueling growth, with the Huey P. Long expansion expected to lead to further variety in the business makeup of Jefferson. For example, the complexion of Elmwood is expected to change now that the footprint of the Elmwood Shopping Center property has been filled with a host of new retail options. As such, real estate experts believe the area could see a move away from its traditional warehouse/industrial legacy.

But the decision of Starr Textile Services to build a $10 million industrial laundry facility in Elmwood shows that it won’t be a dramatic change.

Fat City could be where the overhaul is most noticeable, with new laws having already forced old-line, adult-oriented businesses out of the neighborhood. In their place, Hecht sees opportunity for startup companies and young families to take root, much in the same way the Warehouse District in New Orleans has been reimagined albeit on a much large scale.

“One thing that Jefferson Parish lacks is a true town center, and it could be that Fat City becomes this,” as it undergoes its transition, he said.
There are obstacles that Jefferson Parish must overcome to reach its economic potential, namely a subpar school system that is at the nascent stages of a charter movement. Plus, the Huey P. Long expansion is expected to exacerbate existing traffic issues on surface streets not designed for the anticipated increase in vehicle volume.

Another potential setback could take place at its publicly managed hospitals, which face looming competition from the facilities under construction in Mid-City, in addition to Ochsner’s intent to grow its market share.

Hecht notes that a dated housing stock could also present issues for Jefferson Parish, although families seeking newer accommodations have options in nearby St. Tammany Parish as well as the River Parishes.

On the upside, he notes the education reform movement is under way, and cosmetic efforts such as the art installations along the Veterans Bouelvard median provide a tactile glimpse of the “next Jefferson.” Plus, a $650 million expansion of Armstrong Airport is on the table.

Jefferson finds itself at an enviable juncture of time and location. It’s next door to a city that’s experiencing its own high-profile rejuvenation, thanks in large part to serving as its springboard for recovery after Hurricane Katrina.

With its unfortunate political history hopefully behind it, Jefferson stands poised to continue its economic growth and diversity.

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