Green begets green. At least that’s how local business promoters see it. If they’re right, the New Orleans economy could take some interesting turns down the road.

Greater New Orleans Inc., the business recruiting and expansion agency that serves the metropolitan area, has hatched a plan to build on business trends that have been taking shape during the past five years or so. The agency is determined to nurture the seeds of “sustainable” business to the point where the industry takes root and spreads.

A handful of fledgling companies have made the goal appear within reach. The years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast have produced extraordinary demands for construction materials, supplies and expertise.

Some vendors who responded to the need are determined to bring environmentally sensitive construction techniques and products to New Orleans.

Their efforts have found support among local residents who embraced renewable energy strategies, both in new buildings and rehabilitated or restored structures. The post-Katrina environment helped foster broad interest in policies that encourage smarter use of finite resources and greater dependence on renewable materials and sustainable methods of building.

Solar energy providers find the local atmosphere welcoming, and a few have set up shop in the area. Builders dedicated to “deconstruction” – a careful demolition process that seeks to salvage materials from aging or damaged structures for re-use in new construction – also found New Orleans a good place to hone their techniques. Even the state legislature got into the act in recent years, creating new tax incentives for persons who implement or install energy-saving products and materials.

Recently, members of Greater New Orleans Inc. decided it was time to take the trend to a new level. The agency invited businesses and entrepreneurs to join in a strategy appropriately labeled Green New Orleans. The initiative hearkens to the Digital Media Alliance model that some of the same business advocates used to lure technology and digital media startups to the area. These business developers also banded together behind the business “cluster” concept, working to convince like-minded entrepreneurs to set up shop within arms reach – literally – of one another. Drawn by tax incentives and the mutually supportive environment of shared office spaces, fledgling technology and new media companies sank roots and began to grow.

Michael Hecht, CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., hopes to see it happen again. He says research commissioned by the agency shows that a green economic development strategy could help produce tens of thousands of new local jobs during the next two decades.

If it seems ironic that the devastation wrought by the Katrina flood opened New Orleans’ eyes to green opportunities, consider the effect of yet another huge disaster: the BP oil spill. Just as the importance – and fragility – of Louisiana’s wetlands were beginning to be understood widely, millions of gallons of oil came along to present a completely unforeseen threat.

“If we are successful with Green New Orleans, we will be able to simultaneously diversify our economy while sustaining our environment,” Hecht said in announcing the new initiative. “The Gulf oil spill has made perfectly clear the importance of us achieving both of these goals in tandem.”

The strategy that Greater New Orleans Inc. has laid out represents a four-pronged approach to green development. The initiative involves business marketing and recruitment; tax incentives and other governmental policy changes; work force development; and research.

In the latter category, the agency foresees a coordinated effort with area educational institutions to focus on research that’s directly applicable to local problems and issues. These may include water management or hydrology; sustainable building; coastal restoration; energy efficiency; and disaster management.

Noting that some of these same areas received increased attention after Hurricane Katrina, resulting in the growth of sustainable technologies that we have seen so far, Hecht says conditions brought on by the BP oil spill could produce a further ramping up.

“Green New Orleans is about rebuilding our economy as much as it is about rebuilding the coast,” he says.
A first step in developing the appropriate work force to fuel green growth is under way. Southeastern Louisiana University, the Northshore Community Foundation and Greater New Orleans Inc. have joined forces to create a curriculum specifically designed to prepare workers for the jobs an increasingly green economy will offer. At least one green business already in place in New Orleans is showing interest.

Free Flow Power is a Massachusetts-based company that was among those drawn to New Orleans in the years after Katrina. The company set up shop here in 2009 and is working to develop a groundbreaking power-generation system that would draw on the force of the Mississippi River. Eventually, the company hopes to employ some of the first “graduates” of the green training programs now under development.

Meanwhile, Free Flow Power continues its work to develop to a hydrokinetics system for the Mississippi River Basin. Working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, the company is targeting 80 sites on the Mississippi River and 17 sites on the Atchafalaya River for placement of underwater generators that could one day supply power to thousands of households and businesses throughout the region.