State cabinet member outlines efforts to strengthen Louisiana's economy during COVID

Last month's St. Mary Chamber luncheon featured a pro-business speaker who criticized the Edwards administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, a member of the administration outlined what has been done to bring business interests into the process.

Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson spoke at Wednesday's luncheon at the Petroleum Club of Morgan City.

In August, Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said that without new federal aid from initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, small businesses will find it hard to stay open. Waguespack spoke of a "shutdown culture" in which restrictions on businesses change with fluctuations in COVID-19 statistics.

Since Waguespack spoke, the U.S. Senate has rejected "skinny" COVID legislation far smaller than the $3 trillion package passed in the spring or the $3.5 trillion renewal subsequently passed by the House. Gov. John Bel Edwards has moved Louisiana into Phase Three of coronavirus restrictions, raising capacity limits on many businesses to 75% but keeping most bars closed and retaining the statewide mask mandate.

The reaction from the business community has been mixed at best.

On Wednesday, Pierson spoke of the work of the Resilient Louisiana Commission, which he co-chairs with Terrie Sterling, who represents the health care industry. Edwards created the 18-member commission in April with government officials, a union representative, consultants and business leaders from telecommunications, finance, food service and retail.

Fifteen key economic areas have been identified, each with more representatives to focus on goals in each specific area. In all, 300 people, including staff members have been involved in what Pierson called an "amazing journey" made possible by Zoom and virtual meetings.

The goal is to examine Louisiana's economy to look for ways to make it stronger, Pierson said Wednesday.

"What it really means is less vulnerable," he said. "There has been a takedown of our economy by this virus."

If the recovery only brings Louisiana back to where it was, Pierson said, they'll have failed. The idea is to "come back better," he said.

The effort has resulted in a Louisiana Economic Development help desk and technical assistance to Louisiana businesses, Pierson said.

Pierson's day job is leading LED, which he said is working with the Coastal Technical Assistance Center at Nicholls State. The department is trying to link Louisiana businesses with projects funded through the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority with its budget funded at $1 billion annually.

Sealevel Construction of Terrebonne Parish and Rigid Constructors of Lafayette have landed multimillion contracts in connection with one local CPRA-funded project, the Bayou Chene Flood Control Structure now under construction. The barge that will act as the swinging gate to reduce backwater flooding is being constructed in Amelia.

Pierson also noted that both Morgan City and Berwick have recently met the standards for development-ready communities. The program helps develop leadership in economic development in local communities, he said.

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