From Milk to Movies, Rural Louisiana Offers a Refuge for Storm-Troubled Companies
By Sharon H. Fitzgerald

In rural Louisiana, the cream rises to the top – literally. Businesses off the beaten paths continue to prove that entrepreneurial spirit is the perfect complement to finely honed incentives, ample infrastructure and cooperation. What’s more, a couple of hurricanes didn’t change any of that.

An example is family-owned Smith Creamery in Washington Parish. Touted as the place “where the cream still rises to the top,” Smith Creamery processes milk “the way nature intended, unhomogenized, no added hormones, from contented, grass-fed cows.” Warren and Sandra Smith, with their son Travis and daughter Michelle Hickman, changed the course of their lives four years ago when they shifted their 38-year dairy operation from a wholesale to a retail enterprise.

“We decided that we would have to do something to preserve the life we’ve been living,” recalls Sandra Smith. Brent and Laurie Duncan, owners of nearby Duncan Acres Dairy, are glad they did. They now manage the Smith herd while also selling their own product to Smith Creamery. “That’s what it’s going to take, for the little guy like Smith Creamery to get out there and create competition for the local dairy farmers’ milk,” Brent Duncan says. “I want to drink local milk. I don’t want any milk from Texas or New Mexico or Idaho coming in here.”

On a recent autumn afternoon, Warren and Sandra Smith were knocking on doors in Baton Rouge, working to extend their retail reach. While Smith Creamery lost New Orleans customers, including upscale grocers and restaurants, to Hurricane Katrina, Sandra Smith says the business “is not going to be outdone. We’re trying to expand into new markets now.” And that includes mail-order customers via the Smith Creamery Web site.

Much like the Smiths and Duncans, five Louisiana parishes have joined forces to boost their collective economy. The result was the formation about two years ago of the Southwest Partnership for Economic Development, comprised of Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jeff Davis parishes. “We have a regional economy that’s very diversified, and we just felt like it made sense for us to utilize all those tools and talents,” explains Paul Rainwater, director of administration for Lake Charles, the region’s largest municipality with about 75,000 people.

“When we’re competing for businesses, we are competing against places like Houston, with a population of 4 million people. Well, the state of Louisiana has a population of 4 million people,” Rainwater says. “If we’re not working regionally and taking advantage of every resource we have, we’re basically fighting a losing battle.”

The Partnership’s parishes are decidedly rural, boasting agriculture, timber, gaming and tourism as prominent industry sectors. Yet Calcasieu and Cameron are home to some of the largest liquefied natural gas facilities in the world. While the coastal region took a hit from Hurricane Rita, Rainwater says, “We’re open for business. We bounced back pretty quickly.”

In fact, he acknowledges that a few New Orleans businesses displaced by Katrina have been eyeing the southwest region with relocation in mind. “We’re not going to be overly aggressive about that,” he says. “We want those businesses, if they can, to relocate back. But, in the same sense, we don’t want to lose Louisiana businesses.”

In Louisiana’s northeast corner, a business that began in its founder’s backyard more than 30 years ago should actually see a rise in sales as a result of the hurricanes. That’s because Ruffin Building Systems manufactures metal buildings. With 180 employees, the company processes 500 tons of steel in a week and sells 1,000 and 1,500 buildings annually. Marketed through dealers mostly in the Southeast, Ruffin buildings arrive as components accompanied by drawings.

“After the storms, we’ve had customers call in and need rush orders to close up roofs and do emergency repairs,” says Vice President and General Manager Jimmy Worley. He expects orders to rise dramatically once victims’ insurance claims are processed.

One Louisiana industry that continues to flourish post-hurricanes is film and television. Louisiana is the nation’s third-largest production hub (behind California and New York), thanks to infrastructure investments and a competitive state incentive package that offers a sales and use tax exclusion and employment and investor tax credits. “If your goal is to be an international competitor in this sector, I don’t think there’s a better choice than Louisiana,” says Malcolm Petal, co-founder and chief executive officer of L.I.F.T. Productions. The company produces its own feature films, television programs and movies, commercials, music videos and other works. Its latest motion picture enterprise is Lions Gate Films’ Waiting, which opened nationwide in theaters on Oct. 7. L.I.F.T. locally produced Waiting and filmed it in the New Orleans area.

Petal says L.I.F.T.’s New Orleans headquarters was closed temporarily after Katrina, prompting the company to fast track its plans for an additional location in northern Louisiana. “We made a two-day decision on the fly, and sometimes that is when you’re forced into making the best decisions,” Petal says. The decision was new L.I.F.T. offices in Shreveport to take advantage of Interstate 20 and put the company closer to rural sites for filming. L.I.F.T. also has a production annex in Jefferson, and its New Orleans location has reopened.

Alex Schott, director of the Governor’s Office of Film & TV Development, says Louisiana didn’t lose any productions that were under way or scheduled at the time of the hurricanes. Some shoots did move north and thus to more rural locales “so that they could keep these productions going and people working in the state. That was quite a positive for us.”

Schott expects his office will stay busy. “We’ve had a lot of support in the press, with producers saying they want to bring their next project here to help us with the rebuild process,” he says. “We still have a very competitive program and a competitive atmosphere.”