outhwest Louisiana, a five-parish region anchored by Lake Charles along the gulf coast and Texas border, has recently proved that it can learn from and take challenges in stride.
Nearly 20 years ago, much of the region needed to be rebuilt and reimagined after the devastation of Hurricane Rita in October of 2005. Communities leaned upon on another and helped each other rebuild. Lessons were learned and plans were made to mitigate the devastation from happening again.In 2020-2021, Southwest Louisiana dealt with the four consecutive blows of Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta, an ice storm, and a widespread flood — all during an international pandemic. The bonds forged 20-years before were in place to provide the region with strong and steady leadership. Residents of Southwest Louisiana are and have always been the epitome of perseverance, so they masked up and got back to work — nearly immediately. If needed, they worked out of home offices, hotel rooms or RV trailers. The region was prepared and ready to get back to work. Collectively, the damage estimate from the two hurricanes of 2020 exceeded $22 billion, but industry was up and running within days.
From 2012 to 2021, workers in Southwest Louisiana built a total of 55 large-scale industrial projects that amounted to $48.13 billion in capital investment. The booming liquefied natural gas (LNG) market caused a surge in industrial construction that continues to this day across the five-parish region.
Another 16 industrial projects totaling $7.1 billion in investment are under construction throughout the region, according to the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (SWLA EDA). These include two air cargo facilities at Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles; the Venture Global LNG plant at Calcasieu Pass; Juniper Specialty Products in Calcasieu Parish; and a large Canfor lumber mill in DeRidder in Beauregard Parish.
Energy Demand Reaches the Gulf
Even larger projects are in the works, as an additional 15 projects have been announced and are pending final approval representing another $74 billion in capital investment. In Calcasieu Parish, Driftwood LNG, Lake Charles LNG, and Magnolia LNG comprise a huge chunk of this activity. Cameron Parish — with Commonwealth LGN, Delphin LNG, G2 Net-Zero LNG, and Monkey Island LNG — is the other major area for LNG projects in the works.
“Another $40 billion to $50 billion in projects are expected in the next couple of years.”
— George Swift, President/CEO, The Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance
The job creation numbers are equally staggering. Per the SWLA EDA, total construction and permanent jobs generated by the projects under construction total 6,790. Announced projects contribute another 38,399 jobs, while completed projects created 36,812 jobs.
In a region that annually has around 104,000 non-farm payroll jobs, these are significant economic development numbers. No one knows this better than George Swift, president and CEO of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance.
“Another $40 billion to $50 billion in projects are expected in the next couple of years,” says Swift. “Construction workers travel, so we don’t anticipate any problems in finding enough labor.”
Global energy demand has helped turn Southwest Louisiana into a major center for the U.S. LNG export industry. Cheniere LNG, Cameron LNG and Calcasieu Pass-Venture Global LNG were among the first LNG exporting plants to open in America. Others soon followed.
Swift says five key factors attract these facilities:
Another major factor is the cost of living that ranks among the country’s lowest. At 85.4, the composite index score for cost of living in the Lake Charles MSA ranks well below most major metro areas in the U.S. For example, the index is 111.5 in New Orleans, 104.1 in Atlanta, and 97.0 in Baton Rouge.
Process technology student at SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Photo by Lindsey Janies Courtesy of SOWELA
Friendly Skies Fuel New Jobs
The transportation infrastructure mentioned by Swift includes not only the Gulf-accessible Port of Lake Charles, but also two industrial airports capable of handling corporate and military aircraft: Chennault International Airport and Lake Charles Regional Airport.
Gambling Is No Risk in SWLA
The great decade of progress (2012-2021) saw the Golden Nugget Casino, L’Auberge Casino Resort, Delta Downs Casino Hotel and other gaming properties open in greater Lake Charles. So did the Seven Clans Hotel at Coushatta, part of the Native American casino in Allen Parish.
“The Horseshoe Casino opened just a few weeks ago in Lake Charles, and it will have a Gordon Ramsay Steakhouse,” says Swift. “With demand for LNG picking up due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we really don’t see any signs of an economic slowdown looming for our region. We are seeing solid economic growth across all five parishes.”
Kevin Melton, airport executive director at Chennault, says the best example of resilience in the region is Chennault. “We suffered over $100 million in damage at the airport from Hurricane Laura in 2020,” he says. “We have been in a state of recovery from that storm destruction, but we should be able to finish repairs and rebuilding the airport by the second quarter of 2023. It has showcased our ability to recover.”
Case in point is the new air cargo facility that was recently finished at Chennault. The $4 million, 10,000-sq.-ft. building could be expanded to 40,000 sq. ft.
“Everything we do here is all about jobs,” says Melton of the airport where 1,500 people work. “We have been putting a lot of money into infrastructure. We are on the cusp of finalizing a deal to build a new paint hangar for a current tenant. That would potentially produce another 200 jobs. That is a huge win for Chennault on multiple fronts.”
Tens of billions of dollars in major industrial projects continue to move forward in Southwest Louisiana.
Map courtesy of Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance
How important are these jobs? Consider this: Chennault ranks as the No. 3 economic impact producer among the 70 FAA-controlled airports in Louisiana. And even more jobs could be on the horizon. Northrop Grumman is vying to win the Department of Defense contract for doing modification work on the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber.
Chennault also houses industrial facilities for Citadel Completions, a firm that performs high-end interior work for commercial airlines and corporate aircraft, a few miles away, Landlocked Aviation, a commercial painter for Delta and FedEx planes.
Ricky Estep, director of customer services for the Gulf of Mexico for Bristow Group, says his own helicopter service company enjoys success by operating out of Lake Charles Regional Airport. “When Era Helicopters merged with Bristow in June of 2020, we formed one of the largest helicopter firms in the country,” he notes. “We are growing internationally. We have contracts in Suriname, the Dutch Caribbean, the UK, Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico.”
Population Figures for the
Five Parishes of SW Louisiana:
Allen Parish: 22,687
Beauregard Parish: 37,497
Calcasieu Parish: 203,436
Cameron Parish: 6,973
Jeff Davis Parish: 31,368
Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2022
Bristow now maintains a fleet of 300 aircraft and regularly flies work crews to and from offshore oil rigs in the Gulf. “Houma is our super base, and Houston is our headquarters, but we like Lake Charles because SOWELA Technical Community College here offers an Airframe and Powerplant license for aviation technicians. The A&P mechanics that we are able to hire here are very good,” Estep adds.
Bristow currently employs about 150 workers in Lake Charles.
A Ready Deal Sealed by a Site
Another corporate executive doing business in the region points to the available site inventory as a key business attraction in Southwest Louisiana. Angelo Torre, director of manufacturing at beverage conglomerate Stoli Group, says that a prime build-ready site made Lacassine in Jefferson Davis Parish the perfect spot to place Louisiana Spirits Distillery.
“I come from a history of large greenfield projects, and I am really impressed with Southwest Louisiana,” Torre says. “We decided to expand our Bayou Rum plant directly off Interstate 10 in Lacassine. A rail center is located right next to us. A lot is happening here because they have the land. We are within two and a half hours of the Port of New Orleans and two and a half hours of the Port of Houston. Just a little farther away is the Port of Mobile. This is a stellar spot.”
Due to early success at the new site, Bayou Rum is expanding, Torre adds. “We are bringing in a new bottling line that will take us from 300 bottles an hour to 3,600 bottles per hour of run time,” he says. “That changes our warehouse size and the number of trucks coming in daily.”
What Others Are Saying
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter: “Economic diversity has been important for Lake Charles. We set up three economic development districts when I came into office: one for Enterprise Boulevard; one for lakefront; and one for I-10. Since then, we have been able to attract Acadian Ambulance, AA Billiards, the Port Wonder Children’s Museum and Nature Center, a 400-unit apartment community, a law firm and a CPA firm. We’ve also seen a lot of success in workforce and workforce housing. Our incentives have been very aggressive in these three economic development districts. We are a very welcoming community to business and industry.”
Dr. Neil Aspinwall, Chancellor of SOWELA Technical Community College: “We are up 12% in enrollment after opening a new hospitality and culinary center. The gaming sector in the region is growing, and so is the demand to train workers. Casinos are like small cities with thousands of employees. They have a difficult time finding trained workers. To help them, we enlarged our culinary school. Now we’re training dealers at our hospitality school. We also implemented the pipeline training academy. Look at a pipeline map of the state. It looks like a spaghetti map. The closest training program we could find was in Oklahoma. Funding for a grant was provided and we are building an outside training loop. Students are being trained to build, install and maintain a new pipeline. We’ve also opened our own truck-driver training program.”
When asked what he would advise corporate executives in other states to do, he said: “If I were a manufacturer, I would likely put my plant right here in Jeff Davis Parish because I would have this giant rail spur adjacent to I-10.”
Torre says he also likes the local workforce. “I get a lot of good skills from the dual-enrollment students at SOWELA. They have integrity and work ethic, and they are incredibly tenacious.”
Much like the region they spring from.
This Investment Profile was prepared under the auspices of Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. For more information, visit www.allianceswla.org.
Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.