Where Ideas Take Off

Vermilion Parish, LA

Vermilion Parish, Louisiana is a coastal community on the Gulf of Mexico, halfway between Houston and New Orleans, with a lot to offer. The parish has learned to adapt to changing economic conditions by piloting new ideas while preserving its vibrant culture and way of life.

Considered to be part of the Lafayette Metropolitan Statistical Area, Vermilion Parish is small – with a population of under 60,000 – but mighty, with a strength that comes from its proactive resolve, the ability to make data-driven decisions to the benefit of the entire region, and the confidence to be a leader.

At the heart of its continued evolution are the concerted efforts of the people and businesses who call it home.

“We have seen the resilience of our local companies shine through,” says the Executive Director of the Vermilion Parish Economic Development Alliance (VEDA), Anne Falgout, of Vermilion Parish’s willingness to push through the challenges it faces. “We’re always piloting things. This community is not scared to be the first, which is wonderful.”

Vermilion Parish is where ideas take off and behind many of these efforts is VEDA. It has been active in the community since 2014 when it was established to address the changing economic reality facing the community.

“Back in 2014 we were definitely in what I would call a down economy, so it was a good time to double-down on investments to have organizations like ours working with companies that might be experiencing some sort of financial difficulty or negative effects of the national and local economy,” explains Falgout.

Coming back onshore
With Vermilion Parish traditionally an oil- and gas-heavy economy, a reduction in exploration activities in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in an industry shift from off-shore to on-shore operations. Once representative of eighty percent of the local economy, oil and gas now represents only a fraction of that.

To compensate for the loss of private and indirect investment in oil and gas and ancillary oilfield services, Vermilion Parish is looking to transfer the knowledge base from that industry and leverage the skill sets of displaced workers from that sector in new and innovative ways.

Decommissioning is a great example of how new opportunities are coming from that shift in demand. Green energy is another example where Vermilion Parish can leverage its assets and location, as well as its expertise in oil and gas and energy, to diversify into a more sustainable sector.

“Areas like ours are really poised to step into the future and be leaders in this kind of industry. It’s the same with water management,” says Falgout. “Out of adversity come these opportunities to reinvent yourself, and we see that happening all around Southern Louisiana.”

Transferring skills
Vermilion Parish is doing its part to put its educated population to work by trying to understand what occupations fit the community and its existing skill sets; reverse-engineering the kinds of businesses and industries that make the most sense and ensuring the infrastructure is in place to support modern industry.

New technologies and approaches will further advance the region, as Falgout explains. “Those areas will be targeted to make sure that they have the 21st century assets that are needed to be attractive to 21st century business.”

A major recent initiative in Vermilion Parish is in broadband connectivity and implementation of IoT (the Internet of Things), which many sectors require for operation in today’s economy, including advanced manufacturing, health care, and even education.

“That’s an initiative with the region to increase broadband availability – and not just availability, but real access.” Falgout says that another imperative is to ensure that it’s reasonably priced.

Advanced manufacturing is right at home in the area given its available land and access to major thoroughfares, markets, and infrastructure. A perfect example is metal machine manufacturing and its application to the established agriculture of the parish through activities such as manufacturing implements for farm equipment.

One of Vermilion Parish’s greatest assets is its ecology and its traditionally agrarian society, which is also doing its part to evolve and modernize. Some of its agricultural sectors are alligator harvesting, rice, sugar, seafood, and grass-fed cattle rearing, and the parish is looking to add value wherever possible through efforts like heritage and ecotourism and food production.

The capital challenge
With activities like farm-to-table tours, seafood processing, and value-added food production, Vermilion Parish pays homage to its roots while focusing on the future. But the major challenge with many of these seasonal and high-risk operations, like shrimping, is the difficulty in securing capital, so this is an area where VEDA steps up and helps.

VEDA is working with operators in the agricultural sector to identify ways that economic development organizations can offer resources to these sectors. It works with the banking industry to increase access to capital and does its part to provide structure and accountability in those operations.

“The organization went from focusing on short-term goals and high impact services for our existing businesses to now where we’re looking at long-term planning for communities and long-term planning with our companies; things like succession planning, how to take advantage of technology, and what distinguishes them and their value proposition,” says Falgout.

Grass-fed cattle production has been a major focus of economic developers in the area who are working together to get that industry off the ground. Initiatives like the Cattle/Beef Industry Assessment have a lot to do with the culture of Vermilion Parish and its sense of identity.

As Falgout points out, “Vermilion Parish was at one time the largest producer of cattle in Louisiana, but over the years, businesses that support cattle and beef production have been closed or moved out of the parish.”

Building best practices
Vermilion Parish has secured funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Delta Regional Authority to conduct a broad-spectrum survey and accompanying study that should give it a better understanding of the state of the cattle and beef industry. It should also clarify the opportunities and challenges that the county faces in building adequate infrastructure and establishing best practices.

VEDA is making sure that the effort and accompanying results are in alignment with the work being done by the USDA Rural Business Development, Louisiana State University Ag Center, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, Vermilion Parish Cattleman’s Association, and the sector itself.

“Businesses want to see communities invest in themselves,” explains Falgout, exactly what Vermilion Parish is doing. Proper planning will help the community and the region set the stage for development success.

Further to its planning efforts, Vermilion Parish is promoting itself as a great place to call home – working step by step to establish designations such as retirement- and development-ready communities that will lay the foundation for its competitiveness.

Kaplan was one of the ten communities to receive retirement-ready designation and Abbeville, the parish seat, is working hard to ensure the city is suited for development. The city’s Main Street district and neighboring historic area has been designated an Opportunity Zone and will be the focus for new residential construction, as well as rehabilitation efforts. Leveraging these unique designations together is attracting new attention to the community.

Keeping it local
The Keep It Local, Vermilion! Program was formed to get local people into local shops, educating people about what’s available and highlighting the impact that spending your dollars locally can have on the greater community.

It’s apparent that VEDA is taking action on every development front. This includes its drive to secure a seat at the table when Congressional redistricting takes place, and to ensure that its voice is heard on the potential new boundary, which could have implications for its representative structure.

One of VEDA’s – and the region’s – greatest strengths is a collaborative approach to development and willingness to create partnerships to achieve shared goals and promote optimal outcomes for its local communities and for the parish, as well as for the region and state. Through its collective efforts, VEDA has gained the necessary empowerment from local stakeholders and community members to seek results.

Financial foundation
“We’re at a place right now where we have the confidence in our community to move forward with these things, and get the buy-in that we need to do them. We are entering into a new outlook on the sustainability of the organization,” says Falgout.

To achieve these ends, members of the parish will have the opportunity to vote on the imposition of a nominal ($7.75) parcel fee for property owned in the parish. This is to provide a financial foundation with which VEDA can finance its initiatives promoting greater opportunity, prosperity, growth and success for the region.

“This spreads the responsibility of that big-picture thinking, economic development, long-range planning to the people of this community,” explains Falgout. “Right now, we’re reliant on the kindness and participation of local agencies and local taxing bodies – and we’re now asking the community to support these efforts if they want someone waking up every day with a focus on our future.”

So, a united and enthusiastic Vermilion Parish has a viable plan of action and countless initiatives underway that will position it not only to overcome challenges it faces but leverage those challenges into opportunities to thrive.

Working in partnership, the focus is to help existing and prospective businesses and the members of the community be as effective as possible so that the many ideas that are being piloted in Vermilion Parish take off and soar, elevating the region in the process.