A local nonprofit is working to alleviate two of the biggest problems facing south Louisiana: disappearing jobs and a disappearing coast.
The Bayou Region Incubator seeks to help businesses in Terrebonne, Lafourche and St. Mary parishes launch and grow, paying special attention to those dealing with coastal erosion.
The organization intends to house start-ups in a subsidized space. It will help them save on internet, utilities, conference rooms and office space. And it will offer services such as financial planning, funding options, marketing training and mentoring.
“Its mission is to grow and support a diverse, sustainable and inclusive economy in the bayou region through entrepreneurship and small business development of industries addressing Louisiana’s coastal crisis,” said Kevin Pitts, executive director of the venture.
The program, now housed at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, is a start-up itself, awaiting final approval of $3.5 million in federal grant money it will use to build a home of its own.
The incubator, modeled after a similar effort in New Orleans, is among four projects in Terrebonne and Lafourche the state approved in 2018 as part of the La Safe program. It uses federal disaster grant money to pay for projects that complement Louisiana’s $50 billion, 50-year plan to fight coastal erosion and provide hurricane protection.
The nonprofit’s goal is to help develop businesses that focus on coastal projects, but others won’t necessarily be turned away, Pitts said.
“Let’s say you came to me with a great idea and it really didn’t help the coast, technically, but I can see how you are going to have a thriving business and you are going to employ a lot of people,” he said. “I’m going to take that to the board and make my point that we ought to have you.”
Nicholls officials said the incubator will work with the university’s planned $14.5 million coastal research center to create jobs in water management and coastal restoration.
A 2017 study by Greater New Orleans Inc. predicted the field would require 5,294 new middle-skill jobs and 5,837 high-skill jobs over the next decade across southeast Louisiana. A 2019 study by the business group estimates more than 25,000 jobs are already at work in water management and coastal restoration throughout the region.
Pitts, who began work in September, has since been meeting with local officials and business leaders, along with the seven-member board of directors.
Matt Rookard, CEO of the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority, said his group attended those meetings and looks forward to a potential partnership
“The idea is the economic development community both at the state, regional and local levels participating together to make sure that these businesses can get started,” Rookard said. “It’s both office space and information, and so having a spot for those folks to go and us all work together to make sure they are as successful as they can be — I think that’s the idea.”
When the incubator is fully developed, businesses that apply will be reviewed by Pitts and the board for membership. Members will have access to offices, boardrooms, internet, printers, receptionists, security and other physical assets that any start-up requires. Pitts said he also hopes to provide members access to services such as financial planning advice and access to venture capital.
Start-ups would have certain requirements for remaining in the three-year program, such as meeting growth targets, getting a copyright or patenting their products or ideas.
Nicholls also houses a Small Business Development Center that helps Houma-Thibodaux area businesses with many of the same hurdles, its assistant director, Jimmy Nguyen, said.
Nguyen, also a committee member with the Bayou Region Incubator, says the current Small Business Development Center will work together with the newer nonprofit.
“We’re going to be a huge part of the incubator,” Nguyen said. “We’re going to be within it, and we’re going to be offering the programs, like all the training classes, meeting with entrepreneurs, providing mentorships, and access to capital.”