Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu had a lot (a lot a lot) to say about the massive World Cultural Economic Forum set for this Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 30-Nov. 1, at the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center when I rang him last week. Read the full transcript of our conversation below, and the Gambit article that resulted here.
What were the kernels of the WCEF?
This event initially started off as the result of an initiative I created that was trying to find a way to create jobs in Louisiana through culture to look at the back-of-the-house side of culture and see what investment culture creates in Louisiana. Most of the time people look at culture as a way to build a relationship with another country so you can do real economic development, or a way to enjoy a nice outing. My idea is to grow jobs out of it. One of the things I want to do this weekend is to look at the economic impact out of the back-of-the-house side. The film tax incentives are a perfect example of how to use a typical business practice tax policy to grow an industry. And of course you saw that: the film industry went from doing $30 million business to $800 million business, were doing more than 60 feature films, and were now an international player in the film community. We did that by treating it like a business and by growing an asset that we already had in Louisiana. If you apply that same principle to art, music and historic preservation all the other things that fall under the umbrella, restaurants, tourism add up the value of those jobs. There are 144,000 jobs that are attached to culture. Its an authentic thing that Louisiana has that no other state in the nation (has), and few cities in the world have. The idea is adding value to your raw material, raw talent or intellectual capital, and growing jobs from a base you already have. It fits perfectly into Louisianas strength.
The growth from last years exploratory event is incredible from 22 to 60 countries participating.
Three years weve been exploring this. Weve done national studies; the Mount Auburn study came out. So that was the local piece. The international piece came out of the realization that Louisiana because of its history with the French government, with the Spanish government, with our indigenous cultures holds a very special place in the international communitys eye. And I wanted to push both of those things together and use Louisiana as an international gathering place for world leaders and world communities to talk about culture and the economics of culture. I patterned it after the World Economic Forum in Davo, Switzerland. So I pushed both those together and created a monthlong event that is designed to tie indigenous and authentic cultures in Louisiana together with authentic cultures from around the world. And the link is actual hard-core, business-to-business discussions between other countries and economic development players in Louisiana by parish.
How is it structured?
Its divided into four parts. One of them is Passport events, where we encourage people from around the state to participate by region. The second thing is for all of those folks to gather in New Orleans at the end of the month for the formal WCEF gathering, which itself is divided into three separate pieces. One of them is what we call business-to-business. This was a new way of approaching economic development with foreign direct investments. In addition to me or the governor or other people traveling to other countries to build relationships and to try to encourage foreign direct investment, the idea here was to add value to that which is already here. How would we do that? I engaged Mayor Fields from Pineville, Mayor Jacqueroy from Alexandria, Mayor Ronnie Harris, and other parish presidents. And I said, What Id like you guys to do is get together with your local economic development arms. I want you to get in a room with the state economic development experts. And I want you to find the businesses that currently exist in Louisiana that have a connection to another country. Then I want you to find the American businesses in your parish that are doing business in foreign countries, and I want you to identify what form of governments you want me to invite for the specific purpose of you having side meetings to add value to the jobs that currently exist. For example, theres a French company called Zedexo that works in New Orleans. Were gonna try to make sure that when the French contigent comes in, they know what French business is here, and were gonna ask them how to grow what already exists. So if you have that incremental growth across 64 parishes, all of a sudden that equals significant job growth, and not much has to change. Thats a very significant piece thats going to take place. Then were gonna actually have the formal gathering of representatives from 60 countries in sessions that are divided into subject matters that are important to the culture economy. So there will be one on digital media, there will be one on film, there will be one on art, there will be one on historic preservation, there will be one on sustainable energy. Gov. George Pataki is going to be the keynote. The third piece will be the following Saturday, where there will be a world bazaar. And that is going to be an environment where those countries who are bringing in musical acts, cultural acts, things of that nature, can be in the same space as Louisiana artists can be in, and it will be a world expo. Hopefully it will turn into a yearly event, and Louisiana will be positioned to take advantage of its special place in the international community.
By what measures are you judging success for an event of this magnitude?
We think its been a success already. We have 126 Passport events, a complete buy-in from the entire state. It was organized by region. Im a huge fan of regionalism. The idea is, 64 parishes in Louisiana are not competing against each other. We need to organize ourselves into seven or eight economic development regions, each playing to our strengths and each partnering with each other to create a unified team that can then compete on an international stage. Weve succeeded in that organizational structure that manifests itself through the Passport events being done region by region, and then through the business-to-business roundtables that are being done by region. Now weve just got to execute next week. Finally, the buy-in from the international community, and we have 60 countries that are scheduled to show up. Were expecting it to be a tremendous success. I hope to have upward of 1,000 to 1,200 people there. We have somewhere around 475 signed up. I feel very good about it. Its a step to where I want to be. My goal is for Louisiana to be a major player on the international stage. It is a state, and were one of many, but we hold a very special place as it relates to international events not only from a tourism perspective, but from an economic perspective. We want countries to know that when they invest in America, Louisiana is as good a place as anywhere else, and we understand international cultures.
I just came back from Quebec for the 400th anniversary. We were the only state in the world that was asked to participate as a state. There were 58 other countries there as part of the Francophonie its like a diaspora of French-speaking countries. And Louisiana was invited. All of these countries see Louisiana and I dont say this lightly as a country unto itself. We want to use that influence to build closer relationships with Canada, which is one of our great trading partners and tourism partners, and of course France not only is it one of our primary tourism markets, there are is a huge number of French businesses in Louisiana. We want to continue to push that as well. Well capitalize on relationships like that to grow the WCEF into something that is as big as the WEF.
Economic experts have been advising basic-needs investing: utilities, food providers, health services, etc. But your approach seems to be the argument that, in Louisiana, culture is a basic need.
We work really hard at it. But let me tell you, the economic impact of culture is not a luxury. Its a real hard-core number, which is one of the things that were trying to prove to people. For example, lets talk about historic preservation. Lets talk about it in the context of the Road Home program. The federal government gave the state of Louisiana money. They tried to give it to homeowners. You know that whole story. What people dont know is that my department, the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, was able to secure upwards of $14 million that was designed to get to people who live in homes that are on the Historic Registry. Weve set up a system where we got money to people with 60 to 90 days. Six hundred homeowners got their money. We can show you every homeowner that applied, the process that they went through, the panel that graded them, how fast they got the money and what theyve done with it. We have pictures from beginning to end. We set those processes up all the time. So when they say historic preservation doesnt mean economic development, I can prove to you empirically that it does. I can prove to you empirically the growth in the film industry. I can prove to you empirically the return on investment that culture provides to the state of Louisiana. And its responsible for 144,000 jobs. It may be a throwaway in other states, but not in Louisiana. It is an integral part, not only of the quality of life, but the tax revenue that is generated that are part of the culture. Thats a fact.
Let me give you a definitive example. Lets use John Folse. A not-so-positive example is Wynton Marsalis. He [went] to Lincoln Center and added value to his raw talent by doing an $800 million project and selling his talent in New York. He added value to it, but added value to it there. Now, Wyntons a great ambassador, hes a dear friend of mine and hes been great for Louisiana. But imagine if he couldve done that in New Orleans what the economic impact that Jazz at Lincoln Center has in New York, in New Orleans. Now lets talk about something that happened in New Orleans. John Folse, who is a chef, started a little restaurant, made two restaurants, made three restaurants. Then he decided to do a catering business. Then he decided, I want to do manufacturing. What he does is, he comes to the state, we work with him, and he finds a way to build a distribution center where he produces millions of pounds of food that come out of our grounds that he cooks and sends off to the rest of the world to stock on Wal-Mart shelves and everywhere else. He now has 400 jobs. Out of culture. Thats what were talking about.
This is not about just going to a movie and buying some popcorn; this is about building jobs and economic development and return on investment. My attitude is, because I was born into the hardscrabble fights that you have in Baton Rouge about policy, I told the cultural industries: If you want to participate, you have to compete with everyone else thats asking for money. And the way you compete is, you dont go with your hand out; you go offering something. And if you can prove to them that your return on investments is greater, you have a greater call on scarce resources.
The WCEF is a way to tie the international community together with the state community in Louisiana, to the local community, to the indigenous cultures, and have them create a standard of living that makes Louisiana a great place to live, to work and to play. Thats really what it is: one product that is a manifestation of our general principles of governing and our vision to make Louisiana a place where people who live in the cultural world can make enough money to send their kids to school and encourage their kids to come back home.