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Global Village 

Mitch Landrieu says the World Cultural Economic Forum is bringing a wealth of culture — and a world of potential capital — to southeast Louisiana

For proof of Louisiana's cultural importance on the international stage, look no further than Quebec City's 400th anniversary celebration in June, says Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

"We were the only state in the world that was asked to participate," Landrieu says. "There were 58 other countries there as part of [La] Francophonie — it's like a diaspora of French-speaking countries. And Louisiana was invited. All of these countries see Louisiana — and I don't say this lightly — as a country unto itself."

During the last three years, the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, a division of the office of the Lt. Governor, has studied the viability of staging a global symposium in New Orleans with the goal of increasing capital by promoting the state's indigenous cultures. That vision becomes reality this week at the World Cultural Economic Forum, a massive gathering scheduled for Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 30-Nov. 1. Landrieu expects the event will draw representatives from 60 countries and more than 1,000 attendees to the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center, all in the service of generating economic development through Louisiana's most abundant resource — the talents and heritage of its residents.

"There are 144,000 jobs that are attached to culture," he says. "It's 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 Louisiana's strength."

The event is broken down into three basic elements: passport events, which have been occurring at locations statewide throughout October; the forum itself, a series of panel discussions, presentations and direct business-to-business sessions; and a World Bazaar and Marketplace, featuring artisans and vendors from Louisiana and around the globe.

Each section was designed to serve a specific purpose. Of the Passport events, says Landrieu, "We were able to give out about $246,000 in grants to give incentives to every parish in the state. We have 126 events, a complete buy-in from the entire state."

The idea, he explains, is to get everyone rowing in the same direction. "I'm a huge fan of regionalism. Sixty-four 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."

Planning for the forum began with meetings between Landrieu and several parish presidents, during which the latter says Landrieu made two specific requests: "Find the businesses that currently exist in Louisiana that have a connection to another country. Then 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."

Thus the benefits can be internationally symbiotic. Landrieu cites Sodexo, a French food services corporation that does business in New Orleans, as one example. "We're going to try to make sure that when the French contingent comes in, they know what French businesses are here, and we're going to ask them how to grow what already exists," he says. "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."

But the film industry is Landrieu's prime piece of empirical evidence. He points to the substantial growth from tax credits and incentives — largely responsible, he says, for turning a $30 million business into an $800 million one — as a replicable boom in other cultural industries.

"The film tax incentives are a perfect example of how to use a typical business practice — tax policy — to grow an industry," he says. "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."

And if the film industry is exhibit A, Landrieu argues, John Folse is exhibit B. The chef's Donaldsonville-based production company has turned a local treasure into a national supplier. "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," Landrieu says.

"He now has 400 [employees]. Out of culture. That's what we're talking about."

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