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Will They Stay or Will They Go? 

Companies continue to flock to Louisiana's hurricane-recovery economy -- for now.

If you believe economic development flacks, businesses inside Louisiana and around the world are drooling at the thought of gobbling up some of the post-Kat-Rita work here. Our needs are enormous, but so is the corporate world's appetite for government contracts.

Displaced residents need new homes; corporations need to relocate and/or reopen; children require schooling; environmental hazards must be cleaned up. The list goes on.

The state recognizes the opportunities and is promoting them on an unprecedented scale. Inserts explaining the nature and scope of available gigs -- along with related incentives -- find their way into national publications like Business Week, Entrepreneur and Forbes. Ads have also been designed for the websites of CNN and The Economist.

Like a coupon for free money, the ads are working, say state officials. After years of worrying about corruption and our Byzantine legal system, companies are beginning to regard Louisiana as a hot prospect.

But once the red-hot rebuilding cycle cools down, will any of the companies that come here to make money off the recovery still want to invest in Boudreaux, Marie and the kids?

Officials with Louisiana Economic Development argue that the state's variety of tax breaks and assistance programs are precisely why migrating companies will stick around. The business stimulants set the stage for companies to check us out, and the state's new "open for business" philosophy, in concert with incentives beyond the recovery period, bolsters hopes for long-term investments.

In part, that's what lured Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton to south Louisiana this year. The strategy, management and technology consulting firm employs 17,000 people on six continents and generates roughly $3.6 billion in annual sales. To say the least, it's not your average mom-and-pop outfit.

Unlike companies wanting to cash in on debris-removal contracts, Booz Allen is trying to drum up business directly with the state, says Bill McDade, a senior associate at the firm. An office in Baton Rouge, the hub of state government, is still in the works for Booz Allen, but the company already is calling on the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Louisiana Economic Development and the governor's office.

Presently, Booz Allen has an office with 50 employees in Metairie and pulls in an estimated $6 million a year in Louisiana-based revenues. The local office focuses exclusively on federal contracts, such as the one Booz Allen has with the U.S. Minerals Management Service to help streamline offshore drilling leases.

But Baton Rouge could be the company's future home in Louisiana -- if the firm picks up significant state work. "There is an incredible amount of money moving through the state right now," McDade says. "A week after the hurricane hit, we started to do business development offsite and strategizing on our next step, and that major play was state work."

Donald M. Pierson Jr., assistant secretary of Louisiana Economic Development, says that kind of story has been told and retold countless times since last fall. Because of the hurricanes, companies that would never have considered Louisiana are now working with the state.

While some worry that new businesses might be here only temporarily, Pierson says he isn't concerned.

"Some of these companies are traveling a long way, and they are nationally respected companies that haven't been able to do large-scale business with us before," Pierson says. "But in this moment of history, we need all the engineering and technical expertise we can get to speed up recovery. They are welcome and they will continue working with us."

Pierson says LED has beefed up its outreach program and is keeping track of new businesses. More important, the department is making companies aware of incentives available in the state, such as Community Development Block Grant funding and the far-reaching Gulf Opportunity Zone Act, which provides tax-free borrowing, a slew of write-offs, depreciations and much more.

Thirty-one parishes are eligible to participate in the Gulf Opportunity Zone program, and Pierson says companies are targeting those parishes with a vengeance.

"I think we're going to continue to see a vast number of major U.S. corporations demonstrating a new or renewed interest in doing business with the state," he says. "All of these incentives will help companies that want to make a major investment in Louisiana to put themselves in a favorable position to take advantage of the market."

McDade agrees that the momentum continues to build and he's glad Booz Allen is coming in relatively early. As for whether new companies flocking to the state ultimately stay or go, he says it would be a bad business decision to leave the market any time soon.

That makes sense, because most expect the recovery to take at least five years, maybe 10. More importantly, corporate responsibility should dictate a company toughing it out in a situation like this, McDade adds.

"We're focused on expanding in southeast Louisiana and are dedicated from a personal standpoint," McDade says. "Our employees and partners live in Louisiana and we want to see both flourish once again."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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