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Southwest Daily News - Sulphur, LA
  • Fort Polk's tour of Lake Charles provides possibilities

  • Top brass from Fort Polk and Lake Charles gathered for a tour of the city, organized by the Southwest Economic Development Alliance recently.
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  • As the sun sparkled across the waters of Lake Charles Sept. 13, top brass from Fort Polk and Lake Charles gathered for a tour of the city, organized by the Southwest Economic Development Alliance — the economic development organization for the five parishes of Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis.
    Randy Roach, Mayor of Lake Charles, welcomed Brig. Gen. William Hickman, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk commanding general, and the group from Fort Polk, and said that he was excited to have them in attendance for the tour. Roach thanked the soldiers present for their service.
    "Each of you has given and sacrificed for our country," he said. "You represent an Army unequaled in the history of the world. We tend to talk about the greatest generation being the soldiers who fought in World War II, but I think it is also appropriate to point out that we have a new greatest generation and it's the men and women in our armed forces today. So, on behalf of this community, those I call the protected, thank you for your service. You honor us by your presence here today."
    Once loaded on the trolley-style bus, the tour began. The starting point was the Lake Charles Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau. From there the bus traveled around the lakefront taking in Veteran's Memorial Park, the Civic Center, the Port of Lake Charles and more. As the tour progressed, George Swift, Southwest Economic Development Alliance president and chief executive officer, and other dignitaries took turns relating the history and highlights of many of the points of interest to be found in Lake Charles.
    Swift said that much of the property around the lake is now available for commercial development and has the potential for growth.
    "We think in a few years, you will see a lot of activity with companies building hotels, restaurants and shops," Swift said.
    He said the Lake Charles area is brimming with potential due to the fact that in the last year the area has announced $48 billion in industrial projects.
    "Many projects are being driven by the energy sector," Swift said. "One of the biggest is a gas-to-liquids plant that will take Louisiana shale gas and convert it to cleaner burning diesel fuel. That could be about a $20 million investment that will employ about 1,100 permanent workers and will take about 7,000 construction workers to build the plant. That's just one of about 10 projects."
    He said that conservatively, the lake area would need about 18,000 construction workers of all types, trades and crafts in the next three to five years.
    "We will also need about 5,000 permanent workers in all fields," Swift said. "So, there will be a lot of job opportunities here. The bulk of the jobs are in the petro chemical industry but we also have a new casino opening up. That means jobs in information technology, hospitality, security and more. We will need the whole range of workers."
    Page 2 of 4 - Swift explained that Lake Charles industry wants to work with Fort Polk to connect the jobs that are available with the soldiers that need them.
    "There may be some training involved to modify or increase their skills," he said. "That training can be obtained at Sowela Technical Community College, Lamar Salter Technical College, McNeese State University and more. We are going to try to match their training needs with their interests."
    Soldiers are a precious resource, he said.
    "Soldiers have the discipline, intelligence and commitment to make them ideal workers," Swift said. "What we want to do is show them the opportunities here, get them to explore their options and stay in Southwest Louisiana."
    Motivating this commercial growth are the industries already firmly planted in the region. As the bus passed in front of the Port of Lake Charles, Swift said that the shipyard has been the economic driver of many of these projects due to its control of the ship channels for 30 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
    "The port has property along here and most of these projects are on Port of Lake Charles land," Swift said. "They are about the 11th largest port in the nation."
    The bus continued to the other side of Lake Charles and another important growth industry — Chennault International Airport. Randy Robb, Chennault's executive director, said that in the next three years, Chennault will seek to hire about 1,000 people and they are willing and able to help train and transition them into those positions. He said that includes the military. Robb said they do this by using the Louisiana FastStart program, a workforce solution provider that offers training programs tailored to individual workforces, according to www.louisiana.gov.
    "The FastStart program is available to anyone who wants to work at Chennault," Robb said. "It's the most amazing program. Six weeks and they get you ready for starting work on whatever program you are interested in. Sowela Community Technical Training College, located next to the Chennault Airfield, also offers several facilities with training courses ranging from six months to two years."
    He said that the state of Louisiana recognizes Chennault as an economic engine and continues to fund projects such as $17.1 million to build a new hanger.
    "When finished, this hanger will hold wide body airplanes," Robb said. "It is a clear span hanger, which means it doesn't have anything in the center, so you can move airplanes through easily. We can land anything that is built today on this runway."
    As the tour moved close to the McNeese State University campus, Dr. Philip C. Williams, MSU president, discussed the importance of the college to the area's future. He said he was excited about the creativity, innovation and progress happening at McNeese. The university has six colleges - traditional liberal arts and science, as well as four professional colleges: Nursing, teacher education, engineering and business.
    Page 3 of 4 - What's most exciting, said Williams, is what's happening in the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center, also called the S.E.E.D. Center.
    "We have a center for innovation there," Williams said. "Our innovation curriculum is one of two in the nation. Students can major in anything they want and minor in innovation. It's an 18-hour minor that begins with creativity science. The state of the art science that makes 'aha' moments happen. There are exercises to promote those ideas instead of waiting for them to just take place in the middle of the night."
    He said the minor also teaches modern forms of communication, commercialization and more. It is a curriculum available to any student. McNeese has made a great deal of improvement to the campus structurally as well, said Williams.
    "The whole campus has been redone," he said. "There are a lot of new projects happening - new parking garage and resident halls."
    Williams said he is telling people that he believes this is the only place in the nation where a Chamber of Commerce is located on a college campus. Companies can be the result of that partnership between a major university and city.
    "We have a great partnership with the city, chamber, university, parish and state," Williams said. "That is amazing to me. I have never seen such cooperation. We all work with each other and have cross agreements. The perfect example of such
    an agreement is the S.E.E.D. Center, which has cross agreements with the parish, city, state and McNeese. It's a truly remarkable achievement."
    The McNeese president also said that he was proud of the new Memorandum of Understanding with Fort Polk.
    "We are especially thrilled to sign the MoU that allows us to begin teaching classes at Fort Polk, strengthening our partnership over the coming years and helping soldiers take advantage of that," Williams said.
    After the tour, participants attended a luncheon hosted by Mayor Randy Roach and the City of Lake Charles under the auspices of the Southwest Economic Development Alliance where Hickman was the guest speaker.
    Hickman said it was great to be in Lake Charles and thanked the business and community leaders in attendance for welcoming them to their city. He said it seems every day there is someone - from Baton Rouge to local communities - making an effort to outreach to Fort Polk, Hickman said.
    "We have a great partnership with Louisiana," he said. "The small towns outside our gates are very supportive of us, but nowhere in my entire career has an entire state outreached to an installation. It is really amazing. We had a great time on the tour. I took a lot of notes and learned some new things. There were many great things I had heard about, but hadn't actually seen. We are going to be looking at how to integrate these things at Fort Polk. We are excited about the growth here because there will be plenty of jobs for people and that may include some of our transitioning soldiers who are leaving the Army for civilian life. It's pretty exciting for all of us."
    Page 4 of 4 - Hickman said Fort Polk has a responsibility to maintain a positive association due to the importance of the installation to the state.
    "We take this partnership very seriously," he said. "That's why we are in Lake Charles strengthening that relationship and the friendship that we have with communities across Louisiana."

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