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  • 09.30.99

Reinventing New Orleans

Silicon Bourbon? New Orleans works to change its brand from indulgence to innovation and from revelry to research.

It’s been called “The City That Care Forgot,” “The Big Easy,” a destination where vacationers can “Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulez” or “Let the Good Times Roll.” A city of perpetual charisma and steadfast celebration, New Orleans is heralded by most for Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, and a decidedly laidback attitude. Outsiders equate the city with enticing French cuisine, Cajun culture, and legendary jazz and zydeco music — not cutting-edge technology and biomedical research. But that attitude is quickly shifting, as the City of New Orleans prepares to position itself for a major regional re-branding that will place special emphasis on attracting and nurturing new businesses and technologies.

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When most analysts and publications explore the new world of work, they turn toward the traditional capitals of commerce and creativity: Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, or the Pacific Northwest. But if you ask entrepreneurs and community leaders in New Orleans, most will tell you there is a new brand of business evolving in the South. Business leaders and innovative change agents are championing the steady movement in New Orleans to shift toward a faster-paced local economy relying on emerging technologies, specifically biomedicine. In this city built on a history of rest and relaxation, the movement to diversify is being welcomed with open arms. Old southern attitudes about Dixie’s wealth and resources are shifting in New Orleans and being replaced by an emerging understanding that economic diversification is the key to the city’s success in the 21st Century. Community leaders, entrepreneurs, and educators alike agree that New Orleans cannot move forward as a region unless the quality of its workforce is improved through partnerships among the business, political, and academic sector.

The revitalization has already begun with the construction of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Naval Information Technology Center, which will bring 1500 technology-based jobs to the region with average salaries of $40,000-$60,000 per year. New Orleans is scheduled to expand its convention center, and area universities have partnered to bring in $6.8 million in federal funding to advance the development of the bio-tech industry. Louisiana’s “Vision 2020” strategic plan for economic development in the 21st Century includes, as part of its mission, the call for the state to “make significant and sustained changes in the way it does business.”

In connection with Associate Editor Heath Row’s Company of Friends Road Show, Fast Company has asked New Orleans business leaders, city officials, educators, and entrepreneurs to define their long-term strategies and biggest challenges in re-branding the Mardi Gras city as the year 2000 approaches. In the interviews that follow, community leaders from New Orleans speak candidly about the setbacks they’ve faced bringing new business to Louisiana as well as the region’s recent success in luring start-ups and technology industries to Bourbon Street. And they all agree on one thing: the time has never been more ripe for revitalization as New Orleans approaches the 21st Century.

Meet the Roundtable

  • Brand U.S.A.: New Orleans: Given its rich cultural history, can and should New Orleans embrace the technological demands of the New Economy and down play its Mardi Gras reputation?
  • The Business of Partnerships: Since the Civil War days, solidarity has remained the South’s proudest attribute. Just as the Southern states banded together in 1861, various sectors of the New Orleans community are joining hands today — but this union has a different mission.
  • Education Report Card: Dogged by historically low test scores, the New Orleans Public School System flounders while nearby private institutions follow the lead of strong higher education programs in the area. Closing this education gap requires back-to-basics education reform.
  • Models of Success: As New Orleans begins the process of tearing down its failures and building up its most promising future ventures, this sultry Southern tourist town is looking outside the region and inside its city limits for inspiring success stories.
  • Recruiting and Retaining Talent: How can a city attract bright, young talent without a powerful business community? How can a city grow a powerful business community without a pool of bright, young talent?
  • Tech Priority Check: While the New Orleans economy is powered mainly by tourism, many community leaders envision the city as an emerging technological hub anchored by its most recent high-tech achievement: The Naval Information Technology Center.

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