Growing My Hometown
I am proud to be from Lake Charles, LA. I am proud of the culture, food, and hospitality of my hometown. I am proud of how we raise our kids and protect our way of life.
There is however a problem. My generation wants my hometown to grow. They believe that my hometown is on the verge of being “a very cool town”. They recently pushed for a new $400 million casino development called Mojito Pointe to be approved. Combined with the currently standing L’Auberge du Lac, Lake Charles is on the precipice of having a dominating casino/resort complex on the Texas border.
All of which is fine and dandy. I won’t argue the moral merits of a casino. That’s for someone else to decide. Lake Charles won’t become Biloxi, Mississippi because Lake Charles has a base in the petrochemical industry and has a university that has 9,000 students.
My friends however want this town to grow, and they seem to think that this casino is a big step. They also think that a local boy who grew up with us will be a difference maker running for police jury. I agree that those are steps, but they aren’t big steps.
The truth is the vast majority of the money generated by this new casino development goes out of town. The construction of the casino/resort will employ a good number of experts who are familiar with constructing these types of buildings. The construction crews will have a lot of contracted workers from out of state. It is delusional to think that locals will be the only people building the casino.
The design, the decorations, the furniture, artwork, and basically every single thing that will be purchased to fill up the building will be from out of town. The majority fo the ownership will be from out of town.
So besides a few hundred jobs that will pay less than 6 figures what giant impact is there really? The net to the city is in the positive. There is a great deal of positive of ensuring employment for hundreds of people in the long term, but will it grow the city?
What my friends don’t understand is that people who gamble from Texas only stay the weekend. If they live in Houston, they might just drive in and out. People aren’t staying long enough to explore the town. They’ll go play golf at the country club, Graywood, and the casino course, but that’s about it.
It’s great that there’s a Target, Wal-Mart, Marshall’s, O’Charley’s, Sonic, Buffalo Wild Wings, Olive Garden, Texas Roadhouse, Rack Room Shoes, etc. right outside of L’Auberge du Lac, but where do the real profits go? Besides employing people, are those businesses generating money for Lake Charles or for an owner who lives elsewhere?
Then there’s the gentleman running for Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. I remember him from when we were kids. The man has a sterling reputation and is well liked. It’s a big positive that he’s a small business owner in town. He participates in many causes in this town and devotes time and money to it. His entry in the race meant that incumbent of 20 plus years stepped down.
Will he be good for the Calcasieu Police Jury? Yes. Is this man the shining light my friends are making him out to be? No. Here’s what I know about real politics and what it takes to make a real impact. You need highly educated and highly successful people pushing forward. While the man my friends are supporting for Police Jury is successful, what has he really done? Is he highly educated? From what I gather, he’s not. Has he dramatically improved his family restaurant that he’s been running since his teens? From what it looks like to me, he has not. He’s a good man who runs a good restaurant. That’s great, but is he a difference maker? Is he a mover and shaker? Is he going to dramatically change things? No.
Dramatic change requires capital that Lake Charles does not have. There are a few factors that can enable cities to experience and maintain great growth.
First, old established large cities benefit from reputation and sheer size from historical growth. They grow because they have a long established population base. With that base, you can take a certain number of risks and know that you have a workforce and customers. Suburbs of these cities benefit from that same ability to take risks with the additional ability of expansion.
Second, cities that are state capitols can have growth potential from the influx of politicians, lobbyists, the government workers, and the necessary businesses to support the government. Government can get bigger and the support structure can get bigger.
Third, tourist destination cities can grow by building off the influx of money coming from outside the city. They can grow by improving themselves as a destination.
Fourth, cities with large universities or multiple universities with established graduated programs can prevent ‘brain drain’ and keep their young professional population within the city. Companies can utilize these students in internships or different co-ops. Young professionals can work at companies in the town and know that they can simultaneously continue their education and not be stagnant.
Does Lake Charles fit any of that? No. It is not an established big city. It is not a state capitol. It is not a tourist destination other than the casinos. The lack of beautiful beaches or snowy mountains or a historically and culturally relevant history that would attract outsiders to visit means that there is a limitation on tourist revenue. Lake Charles has 1 university that has a dearth of graduate programs that are appealing to young professionals and businesses. Beyond the good engineering school, there’s not much critical acclaim.
What’s even worse is that the petrochemical industry in the town, from PPG, Conoco, Citgo, Basell, etc. aren’t locally owned. Because US Unwired was sold to Sprint, it is also no longer locally owned. You can find relevant employment and salary information here. http://www.citytowninfo.com/places/louisiana/lake-charles/work
The town is also crippled by the number of people living in poverty in the northern part of the town (north of 210). How do you address that? 20% of Lake Charles is living at or below the poverty line.
The brain drain is awful in Lake Charles. A lot of people I grew up with are doctors, lawyers, Ph.D.’s, etc. A lot of them went to highly prestigious schools. How many of them came back to live permanently? How many doctors came home? How many lawyers came home? The majority of my friends and acquaintances who have graduate degrees don’t live in Lake Charles. If you’re smart, you leave. That’s basically the rule of thumb. Seriously, how many SPARK program and AP program kids stay in Lake Charles?
The smart ones who stay generally are involved in highly successful family businesses, have a great family name because of what their father, grandfather, great father had done, or are very close to their family that they couldn’t bear leaving. The vast majority of the rest? They left.
To grow a city, you need young professionals, You need high paying jobs. You need quality education. You need businesses that can establish growth. The driving force for growth in any city is business ownership and well compensated jobs.
For Lake Charles to actually grow, it needs better education. It needs more graduate programs pumping out professional degrees. It needs more companies employing more locals. It needs more locally owned businesses. People need to stop eating at chain restaurants, buying chain retail clothes, etc. The smartest students have to stay.
And one last bit, relying on Texas to never allow gambling within their state is a dangerous way to make money. The world is getting smaller. More information is getting out. People are better educated and social morality barriers are eroding. Do you honestly think west Texas will always be able to prevent Texas from passing gaming legislation? If Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio keep getting bigger and bigger, do you honestly think gambling won’t ever end up in Texas?
It’s dangerous to plan your long term growth around casinos. Even the best of the best, Atlantic City and Las Vegas have seen their profits and infrastructure crumble.
Facts are facts. Lake Charles needs a more prestigious school. It needs more small business owners and less chains. It needs more businesses that employ young professionals making large amounts of expendable money. It also needs to improve the poverty and crime rate in the northern part of town.
Before you come up with solutions and anoint the next political savior, you need to understand the real problems so that you can come up with real solutions. Please show me the money. Show me the plan.