Archive for December, 2011

Thursday, December 29, 2011

NPR Features “In Katrina’s Wake, New Orleans Enjoys Startup Boom”

On December 29, 2011, NPR’s Morning Edition program featured a story on New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery, highlighting the entrepreneurial spirit of the city.  “In Katrina’s Wake, New Olreans Enjoys Startup Boom” by Debbie Elliott, is part of NPR’s “Hard Times: A Journey Across America” series, in which two reporters travel across the U.S. reporting on how the difficult economy is affecting people.

CBC is committed to the recovery and development of the New Orleans area and we are proud of Tim Williamson of Idea Village, Jessica (White) Shahien of 504ward, and Michael Hecht of GNO, Inc. for representing our city in this piece. To listen to the story, please click here.

The transcript of the story is below.

In Katrina’s Wake, New Orleans Enjoys Startup Boom
December 29, 2011
By Debbie Elliott

New Orleans has long been known as one of America’s hardest luck cities, struggling over the years with poverty, crime and corruption and tragic disaster. But the city’s darkest days have sparked a surprising new entrepreneurial spirit.

Residents Billy Bosch and Matt Mouras, for example, are trying to launch a nutritional beverage company and are getting a leg up by Idea Village, a nonprofit that helps nurture the city’s entrepreneurs.

“We have people that have had experience building businesses, people that have already gone through the process that are coaching us. And they’re also extremely connected locally. They can put us in touch with the resources we need as a start up,” Mouras says.

Idea Village co-founder and CEO Tim Williamson says the organization has helped some 1,100 businesses get off the ground.

“It’s meant to be a place for you to trust your crazy ideas,” Williamson says.

And some of those ideas are taking hold. Inc.magazine has called New Orleans “the coolest startup city in America.”

Williamson says it’s no coincidence the entrepreneurial boom came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“Katrina did many, many things, but one is the next day everyone became an entrepreneur. We were all starting over in some way,” Williamson says. New Orleans was closed, he says, so there was nothing to lose by trying something new.

Allison Plyer, deputy director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, says that entrepreneurial spirit was never part of the climate here before.

“New Orleans historically has been very much a third-world economy — the exploitation of raw materials, in our case, oil — [and] cheap labor. So there wasn’t a lot of drive to innovate,” Plyer says.

Plyer says before 2005 when Katrina struck, New Orleans lagged the nation in startups. Now the city exceeds the national average by about 30 percent.

The new ventures include software companies, digital media firms and industries that have developed to handle some of the problems Katrina posed — water management and education reform, for example.

Young people have flocked the city, most of them with college degrees — reversing a decades-old brain drain problem. People like Jessica Shahien, 25, who left for college and had no intention of coming back home.

“I saw New Orleans as kind of a corrupt, sort-of backwards place. I wasn’t going to inherit a family business, I wasn’t going to go into hospitality or oil and gas, so why would I stay?” Shahien says.

But she says Katrina rekindled her connection to the city. Now she’s running 504ward, a play on the New Orleans area code. It’s a brain gaininitiative aimed at keeping young adults in the city.

“You can be a 20- or 30-something and really make a difference really quickly. They come thinking it will be an adventure and then they have the opportunity to do something they would have to wait 10 years in another city to do,” Shahien says.

Nolan Rollins, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, has been working to make sure the city leverages the post-Katrina investment and new business climate, and that minorities aren’t left out.

“This is our ‘Go West, young man.’ This is really the opportunity to make a difference from a generational standpoint,” Rollins says. “If we aren’t making sure they’re a part of the new economy, we’re going to destabilize our economy, there’s going to be no ability for the city to actually grow.”

And that’s been a challenge with the entrepreneurial boom, says Plyer.

“It is not including a lot of the long-time residents of New Orleans. So it’s primarily white folks,” Plyer says. “There are not a lot of African-Americans who are involved in the ecosystem as it’s getting developed.”

Painter Myesha Francis, 32, with her own gallery in the arts district, is an exception. Francis doubts she’d own her own business by now if she hadn’t gotten a start two years ago at the Entergy Innovation Center in the Ninth Ward, one of several entrepreneurial hubs in the city.

“I don’t think it would have happened this fast because the Innovation Center made it possible for me to have the space and be able to work because the rent was reasonable,” Francis says.

Now she’s in a prime location but does struggle to find enough business. “People still spend along color lines — along who they like, who they know, who they don’t know,” she says.

She says some of the city’s old ways hang on. Francis has had to turn to nontraditional lenders, for example, to borrow money for her business. Venture capital has long been the missing piece in the economy here. But even that’s changing, as new angel investors look to fund nontraditional companies.

Clayton White is co-founder of the year-old South Coast Angel Fund.

“You don’t have to be connected to the right rich person to get investment. Now you just need to know we exist,” White says.

The state has helped with angel tax credits, and other incentives for startups. And it has invested nearly $50 million in the New Orleans BioInnovation Center. It’s four stories of modern lab suites designed to commercialize technologies coming out of local universities.

“A lot of the research that was being done down here would just remain in the lab or sit in filing cabinets or it was being licensed away,” says Aaron Miscenish, president of the downtown center.

Now, young graduates can work on scientific breakthroughs right here in New Orleans — by testing old DNA samples that would otherwise be sitting, gathering dust.

For example, a company called InnoGenomics is trying to develop new DNA marker systems to work even in disaster conditions. The idea came to InnoGenomics CEO Sudhir Sinha after he was unable to identify victims of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans’ future depends on keeping and growing this kind of intellectual talent, says Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development alliance.

“How do we ensure that this new culture, which is forward leaning, which is optimistic, becomes the permanent new New Orleanian culture and is not just a bit of rebuilding euphoria?” Hecht says.

He’s hoping the city’s low cost of living and famed lifestyle will help. For someone under 35, he says, the ability to make a meaningful impact and also have fun is a “pretty unbeatable cocktail.” Pun intended, he says.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Times-Picayune: “Single Barge Spawned New Orleans Firm”

The New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune, featured Canal Barge Company in the December 7, 2011 edition, highlighting our business, our people and our industry. This is another example of our commitment to being active members of the communities in which we live and work.

The transcript of the story is below, or to view the full article, please click here.

President of Canal Barge Says He Values His Workforce
Published: Tuesday, December 06, 2011, 6:38 PM
By Richard Thompson, The Times-Picayune

Exactly 78 years to the day after his grandfather started the Canal Barge Co., Merritt Lane III said Tuesday that while “the technology really hasn’t changed that much” for the tow and barge industry, plenty has changed since the New Orleans company got going with a single barge hauling fuel along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in 1933. Speaking at a monthly meeting of ACG Louisiana, a local chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth, Lane, who took the helm of Canal Barge in 1994, said the company now has 595 employees and operates 823 barges. He stressed the importance of the maritime shipping industry’s contributions to the national economy, even though it is often “out of view.”

Canal, which specializes in transporting liquid, dry and deck cargoes, as well as storing bulk liquid products, has expanded considerably in recent years, including a 2007 acquisition of ConocoPhillips’ inland marine fleet of seven tugboats and 14 tank barges, and the 2008 deal that netted Illinois Marine Towing, which handles towing, fleeting and shipyard services along the Illinois waterway.

Lane, who started at Canal in 1986 before becoming president and CEO, said his more than two decades at the company have taught him the importance of “working with our employees, rather than seeing it as an input into our business.”

For an industry that depends on training and maintaining a ready workforce, Lane described his motto as “hire for attitude, train for skill,” and said Canal plans to spend $2.7 million next year on mariner training initiatives.

“We see them as the future,” he told the group. “We talk to 20 individuals to hire one ‘green’ deckhand.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NPR Features “Barge Companies Follow Trains and Toot Their Horn”

On December 6, 2011, NPR’s program All Things Considered featured a story, “Barge Companies Follow Trains and Toot Their Horn” by Blake Farmer, that highlighted the inland waterways industry’s benefits to America and included comments from Merritt Lane, CBC’s President and CEO. To listen to the story, please click here.

The transcript of the story is below.

Barge Companies Follow Trains and Toot Their Horn
By Blake Farmer

The railroad industry has been tooting its own horn over the last three years, letting the world know how efficiently cargo can move by rail. Now barge companies are hopping on that same public relations train.

They’re trying to get noticed in the infrastructure spending debate, which often stops with the three “Rs” of transportation – roadways, runways and railways. The barge industry is introducing a fourth “R” rivers.

The nation’s 12,000 miles of navigable waterway touch 38 states. But for the most part, barges operate in the shadows, under bridges and on lonely stretches of river.

“We certainly need to work harder to be as visible and we’re trying to do that,” says Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president of one of the largest barge companies in America – Ingram, based in Nashville.

He says the industry can no longer afford to stay out of sight. River infrastructure has outlived its 50-year life expectancy. Failure of a major lock or dam could bring commercial traffic to a halt.

Repairs will take big bucks. And to win public support, Mecklenborg says barge companies are trying to one-up the railroads.

“We’re even better”
“Our message is, we’re even better,” he says.

“In fact,” states a TV commercial from the barge industry, “barges have the best record among rail and truck.”

The claim is based on the research of Jim Kruse at the Texas Transportation Institute. He says moving by river is certainly a slow alternative.

“But it is by far the most efficient way to move things when you talk about fuel consumed and emissions being put into the atmosphere,” he says.

Tug boats still burn a lot of fuel – several thousand gallons a day. But they move a lot of cargo too.

Merritt Lane is CEO of Canal Barge Company out of New Orleans and says with the whole PR push, he’s started putting the scale in terms people understand.

Understandable terms
“Instead of talking about a grain barge moving 1500 tons of wheat, that’s 2.5 million loafs of bread or that [one] gasoline barge can move enough gasoline to keep 2,500 automobiles running for a year,” he says. “That means a little more to John Q Public.”

It would take 12 dozen tractor trailers to haul that much gas. Putting it on a barge is not only more efficient, Lane says, it also keeps those trucks off the crowded highways.

An Ingram tow boat loaded down with coal approaches a lock on the winding Cumberland River. Deckhands in yellow rain suits radio instructions to the captain.

“Need to come up on your port about six inches,” one says.

This is the pinch point where barge companies depend on government. Locks function like elevators on the water…that is, unless they’re broken. Then they’re just roadblocks.

On the way up, the chamber fills with water to raise the boat to the lake level behind the dam. Ingram’s David Edgin points to water spewing through seals in a 50-year-old gate.

“It didn’t use to do that,” he says. “To me it’s a sign of the times.”

Elsewhere, catastrophe has been narrowly avoided. On the Ohio River, a 250-ton gate snapped off its hinges. In October, a concrete lock wall collapsed.

“It used to be preventive maintenance. We would fund things in advance of breaking,” says the Army Corps of Engineers’ Jeff Ross.

Fix it as it breaks
The Corps’ $180 million annual repair budget is only enough to fix parts as they break, Ross says. Soon he says there won’t be money to do that

“We’re having to start evaluating what will we not take care of if it goes out,” he says.

But if the Corps’ can’t afford to maintain the entire river system, maybe it shouldn’t, says Steve Ellis. He’s vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“People at their kitchen tables are having to figure out how to tighten their belts and this is an industry that seems to not get it,” he says.

Ellis used to manage the Coast Guard’s inland waterway fleet, so he knows rivers. The Mississippi and Ohio are vital, he says, like interstates. But Ellis compares tiny tributaries not to back roads, but to driveways.

“We’re spending a lot of public dollars maintaining waterways that are for a few private businesses,” he says. “When you get to that point, that’s what they are, they’re driveways.”

Barge companies say rivers big and small need an estimated $8 billion worth of work. They hope to convince Americans that’s a relatively small price for keeping a valuable mode of transportation afloat.

Copyright WPLN and National Public Radio.