At Annual Meeting, GNO Inc.’s Michael Hecht Says It’s Time to ‘Change the Game’

NEW ORLEANS — Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., says he wants to “change the game” in regard to economic development in southeast Louisiana. 

The region’s most visible business booster delivered the message at a jam-packed “state of the region” luncheon on March 17 at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency Hotel. Approximately 1,200 attendees dined on duck confit while listening to speeches, watching a flashy video and even taking in a silly SNL-style skit designed to highlight 2021 economic development wins and lay out GNO Inc.’s priorities for the coming year. Adding to the spectacle, WWL Radio set up a live broadcast from the event. In addition to Hecht, the organization’s outgoing chair Gay Le Breton and incoming chair Richard Cortizas both took a turn at the podium. 

Hecht said 2021 was the “year of exiting gracefully” thanks to sales of Lucid, Sonpro Solar, Levelset and other regional startups whose combined price tag adds up to about $2.5 billion. He estimated that, once the transactions are complete, $1 billion of that will be pumped back into the New Orleans economy to “keep the flywheel turning.”

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While celebrating recent successes, Hecht also urged the attendees to think bigger — and to support changes that will unleash the southeast Louisiana economy.

“Things can change,” Hecht told the audience. “We do not have to accept the past as prologue, accept the past as inevitable. … And we know that we can be world class as a region as a state. We cannot accept mediocrity, right?”

Hecht said the pandemic and unrest in Europe have created an opportunity for south Louisiana ports and logistics companies to bring in more business.

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“We’re about to experience the most dramatic and unpredictable supply chain map since World War II,” he said. “And if the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on — which, unfortunately, is likely going to happen — we face a real possibility of a bifurcated global economy. No more of this ‘world is flat’ thing. Alliances are going to split … and the pieces are going to hang together. That means that supply chains are going to come back to places that are safe and reliable. And it means that corporations are going to make investments in the supply chains in places where they feel that they’re going to have geopolitical stability. So this is an enormous opportunity for us from Baton Rouge all the way to the Port of Plaquemines.”

Hecht said it’s imperative that the region needs a new, state-of-the-art container facility to compete with other ports. “Because the reality is everything is going to containers and the world will pass us by if we don’t,” he said.

Another opportunity for growth, Hecht said, is the offshore wind industry. Some critics have said Louisiana has a “goldilocks problem,” meaning there’s not enough offshore wind under normal circumstances and too much during extreme weather events. But Hecht said technology exists to overcome those challenges — and it’s time for more oil and gas companies to make the investment.

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“What’s happening today,” he said, “is Louisiana companies that have been building and servicing oil and gas rigs are now building and servicing offshore wind installations. It’s just not happening here.”

Hecht cited the wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island — which are currently the only offshore turbines in the country — as an example. Gulf Island Fabrication, MiNO Marine, Edison Chouest Offshore and Montco Oilfield Solutions are among the Louisiana companies who helped build and install them.

“The same skills it takes to weld an oil rig is used to fabricate an offshore [wind turbine],” he said. “The only difference is when you get it in the water, you’re going up instead of going down. So this represents a great way to strengthen our skills and become a supply chain for all the country. The only way to do this is to keep supporting it.”

Clean hydrogen production is another “game-changing” sector of the economy that Hecht is bullish about. He said that Louisiana’s industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans consumes more hydrogen than anywhere else in the country, and that creates an opportunity to pioneer cleaner ways to make it.

“What I love about this is that this is a way for us to support the environment and save our well-paying jobs in the corridor. … Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma have all applied to be one of the hydrogen hubs for the country. This is a critical piece of infrastructure that would really allow us to dominate the production and use of clean hydrogen going forward.”

Also on GNO Inc.’s economic development to-do list: simplify the state’s tax code to attract more relocation and investment, continue investing in education/workforce development, fight rising flood insurance costs, invest in public safety and infrastructure, and continue to create more economic opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds.

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