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Warehousing space, skilled workforce top priorities in Monroe



MONROE, La. – The city might stand a chance of attracting some new major employers or encouraging the expansion of local companies with warehouse space and a skilled workforce, Monroe officials say.

“There is interest in Monroe, and there are companies that are interested in Monroe,” Mayor Friday Ellis said during an interview last week. “We just have to make ourselves more competitive.”

Ellis said the city also is conducting interviews with three applicants to fill the position of economic development officer, which has been vacant for nearly four years.

The last person to serve in the position was the late Dr. Dwight Del Vines, but former Mayor Jamie Mayo fired Vines in July 2016, despite Vines’ 14 years of service in the role.

“We’re down to three candidates for the city’s economic development officer position,” Ellis said. “The person we hire will be the roux that binds everyone together from our chambers, our workforce people, our businesses and more.”

“Having someone in this job will give us a single point of contact for anyone who wants to do business in Monroe,” he added.

Providing better access to Interstate 20 and U.S. Hwy 165 through the completion of the Kansas Lane Connector project also would benefit Monroe’s bids to attract new companies, according to Sue Nicholson, president and chief executive officer of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce.

“We work hand-in-hand with the city on those RFPs,” Nicholson said. “And our chamber continues to be very supportive of the Kansas Lane expansion project.”

The $36-million Kansas Lane Connector project, which has been in development for some 25 years, includes the construction of a two-mile, four-lane highway linking U.S. Hwy 80, through Kansas Lane, with U.S. Hwy 165 as well as a Kansas Lane-Garrett Road connector to make interstate access easier. The project was most recently in the process of clearing, grubbing and utility removal and relocation.

Ellis told The Ouachita Citizen last week the city frequently receives requests for proposals (RFP) fielded by Louisiana Economic Development on behalf of companies seeking to relocate or expand.

“The RFP lets you know that your city is in the running for an economic prospect close to an interstate, a rail, or near an airport,” Ellis said.

The RFP process is confidential and often protected by non-disclosure agreements, so that even the cities competing to secure a new company may not know the identity of the company. After receiving proposals, a site selector visits potential locations and closely scrutinizes each one to find the best site by process of elimination.

“We’re working on a secret LED project now,” Ellis said. “We’re in the running for it. We can cross our fingers and hope our community is in the best position. We’ve also generated our own lead that could potentially bring in 400 to 500 direct jobs.”

“We have plenty of jobs, but this city needs more careers, people with disposable income, people who hire other people,” he added.

According to Ellis, the city has discussed past RFPs with the North Louisiana Economic Partnership and Northeast Louisiana Economic Alliance to determine why Monroe has failed to secure some of the companies looking to move to Louisiana.

“It turns out there are things we don’t have, and some of the things these companies are looking for is warehouse space of 100,000 to 200,000 square feet and about 80 to 90 acres,” Ellis said. “We have plenty of acreage but we don’t have readily available warehouse spaces. They want a place they can plug in and play.”

“I can think of two that we’ve missed because we did not have warehouse space,” Ellis added.

Ellis, who is a member of the Interstate 20 Economic Development Corp.’s board of directors, indicated he hoped the board would consider using its sales tax revenues and bond proceeds to meet the needs identified in some of the RFPs from LED.

“If a prospective company can’t find available buildings, they want to find ready-to-build sites,” Ellis said. “That’s what I want the I-20 board to look at. When companies come look at interstate access, is there an opportunity to bring in developers to develop warehouses? We want those arrows in our quiver.”

Building warehouses was not a normal part of business for the I-20 board, according to Charles Pritchard, the board chairman.

“That’s not normally what we do,” Pritchard said. “Most of our work is roads and sewer infrastructure, but I wouldn’t want to say the board would reject anything that might improve the economy.”

According to Pritchard, the I-20 board is currently researching its obligations and a list of projects to which it has committed funding.

“There are certain economic realities, money that we have and don’t have,” Pritchard said.

According to Friday, his administration identified a handful of opportunities to improve Monroe’s chances of securing new employers after he took office in July 2020 simply by enlisting groups like NLEP and NELEA to certify sites.

“There are sites along the interstate that need to be certified, and we’ve got two sites at the airport,” Ellis said. “We want to certify one of them as an industrial site. When I got into office, I was kind of shocked these certifications weren’t done. They have to be done. That’s what businesses look for.”

Ellis and Nicholson said working with area universities and Louisiana Delta Community College to develop a skilled workforce to meet the labor needs of new employers also was a priority.

“Our focus has been a lot on workforce development,” said Nicholson, of the chamber. “Employers have jobs that are unfilled because they cannot find workers with those skills. That’s an area we can address now, like working with local school boards to create high school programs to develop those skilled workers.”