From the Editor: Good news, bad news about St. Mary jobs

On the surface, the latest unemployment figures for St. Mary Parish look good. Underneath that, the numbers are gloomy.
St. Mary has some things going for it, too. They aren’t magic-wand or pot-of-gold things, but they’re positive developments nevertheless.
First, the almost good news: In May, the St. Mary unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, which is 1.4 points lower than the May 2017 rate, according to the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
Then we come to why the rate is lower. That isn’t so good.
Remember that unemployment is about the number of people who are actively looking for jobs but don’t have them. The unemployment rate fell because the number of unemployed actively seeking work dropped by 20 percent over the last year, while the number of jobs decreased by 3 percent.
The changes in the energy industry, the drop in oil prices and the shift away from offshore work to inland production, continue to work their mischief.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in September 2014, just before the oil price began falling, more than 27,000 people were employed in St. Mary. By December 2017, only about 21,000 people worked here.
The positive developments around the parish may take longer than that to work. But we can point to:
—A $1.3 million Economic Development Administration grant to help build an industrial training operation at the Port of West St. Mary. The Commerce Department says the facility will create 120 jobs.
It will be a 5,000-square-foot facility that offers aluminum fabrication training for the local marine industry, according to the administration. Local industry will provide the equipment, and South Louisiana Technical College will provide the instructors.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, the South Louisiana Community College System, the port, and the South Central Planning & Development Commission all get to take a victory lap for the new operation.
—St. Mary Excel, a group under the Community Foundation of Acadiana, has reached its $140,000 fundraising goal with donations from private individuals and local governments. It will commission a study of economic development opportunities in Berwick and Morgan City. The study will be done by the Urban Land Institute starting in the fall.
When Monica Mancuso, Alice Pecoraro and other St. Mary Excel members made their pitch to the Berwick Town Council on June 12, they acknowledged that some eyes may roll at the thought of another study.
But what sets the Urban Land Institute’s work apart from similar endeavors is depth. Part of the process will be interviews with dozens of local people.
—The Young Memorial Campus of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System is about to get a name change next month as it becomes part of the South Louisiana Community College System.
The change is more than cosmetic. Young Memorial is offering traditional academic courses along with technical training. The addition of transferable college credits available locally will be good for students, of course. But it also broadens the training opportunities for employees of any new business or industry that wants to move into the parish.
—Parish President David Hanagriff and Economic Development Director Frank Fink went to local governments for months with an idea for streamlining the Louisiana Industrial Tax Exemption Program process here.
The local municipal councils, the parish council, the school board and the sheriff all agreed. When a new or expanding manufacturer wants the property tax relief the program offers, Fink will run them through an economic model to determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
If they do, Hanagriff will be empowered to kick the exemption request up to the state level on his own. Otherwise, a potential employer would have to go to those governments individually to ask for the tax break.
And that, Hanagriff and Fink argued, is the kind of red tape that might scare off a potential manufacturer.
Over the years, St. Mary has gotten used to the rapid upswings and equally rapid downturns that go along with dependence on the energy industry. None of the steps outlined here offer that sort of quick transformation.
But there is a sense that private and public entities are building something for the future.
Bill Decker is managing editor of The Daily Review.

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