Layoffs a stark reminder that Central Louisiana is not recession-proof

The long arm of the recession may not have delivered the same blow locally that it did to other communities around the nation, but it hasn't skipped over the area, either.

Just in the past few weeks, news has come that Central Louisiana could lose hundreds of jobs because of forces at play outside the area, including reductions in government jobs, the layoffs affecting all 300 employees at StarTek Inc.'s call center in Alexandria and the likely relocation of mail-processing operations from Alexandria to Shreveport. 

 It was a sobering reminder that while the Central Louisiana economy may be stable compared to some areas, no area is recession-proof. 

 "No one in this nation is completely insulated from the national economy," said Jim Clinton, chief executive officer of Cenla Advantage Partnership, the economic arm of the Rapides Foundation in Alexandria. "We have had and continue to have some insulating factors that offset some of that, but you are never completely insulated." 

 "Are we isolated?" said Mike Johnson, president of the North Rapides Business and Industry Alliance. "I don't think anyone is isolated anymore, because of the nature of commerce."

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, like other state agencies, had to make deep cuts due to a state budget deficit. the department recently announced plans to eliminate 200 positions from its staff in Central Louisiana, including 145 in Rapides Parish.

Last week, StarTek announced it will lay off all 330 workers at its Alexandria call center by Jan. 29, 2011, because of a client's decision. Company officials and local economic developers say they are looking for another client in hopes of keeping the call center open.

A public meeting was held Wednesday to discuss a proposal by the U.S. Postal Service to move mail-processing and distribution operations from its facility on Odom Street in Alexandria to Shreveport. Postal Service officials say no decision has been reached, but those jobs could well be headed north. That was just the latest, but not the only, bad economic news to hit Cenla since the current downturn.

Union Tank Car, which located to England Airpark in 2006, saw demand for its rail cars drop with the economic downturn and cut back production. The Alexandria plant went from more than 600 workers to about 270, though in August plans were made to hire 80 to 100 new workers in expectation demand would increase.

Copeland's of New Orleans and Cabo Rio La-Tex-Mex-Cantina were two Alexandria restaurants that closed in recent months, resulting in loss of about 180 full- and part-time jobs.

The area lost more than 200 jobs when International Paper announced in October 2009 that it would close its Pineville Mill to reduce capacity in its containerboard division. It stopped production in December.

Dresser Inc. announced in March that it was laying off 86 workers at its facility in Tioga, as it outsourced its manufacturing operations to focus on assembly and shipping in an attempt to remain competitive.

"If you look objectively -- the loss of the paper mill, StarTek, the loss of some other things over a period of time -- I think things here are worse than people sometimes want to admit," Clinton said. "I think that's perfectly natural."

"It's frustrating you don't have any effect over things like that," Johnson said. "If you look at the history of Central Louisiana, we're usually a little further down the timeline when things like this happen. I think we're experiencing now what the rest of the country has been experiencing."

The loss of jobs has not only the effect of taking dollars out of the economy, it weakens confidence of consumers who could be spending and companies that could be hiring. According to the Federal Reserve, nonfinancial companies in the U.S. were holding about $1.93 trillion in cash and other liquid assets at the end of September, making for the largest share of those companies' assets since 1959.

"People tend to be a little conservative," said Jon Grafton, executive director of the England Authority, which operates England Airpark. "In the face of uncertainty, they hold on to cash. ... What we have to do as a community is build as solid a base as possible, so we can weather the downturns. Continually work day in and day out. We've been through good times and bad times, and we'll come out the other side." It's that attitude -- what Johnson calls "the can-do attitude of people in Central Louisiana" -- that could be key, as economic developers say attracting, fostering and keeping business in the region is more important than ever.

"We do have challenges," Clinton said. "But overall, there are things you can to point to and say, 'That's exciting.'"

"When you get tackled, you can lay on the ground and cry, or you can get up and run another play," said Rick Ranson, vice president of economic development for the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce.

"We get up and run another play. Initially, it can be frustrating, but you have to ask yourself, 'Did we do everything we could do?' If you've done everything you can do, you move on," Ranson said.

"The way we treat closures like IP and announcements like StarTek is, we love to have them here, we want to do everything we can to keep them, but if they go, it presents an opportunity for new folks. Instead of throwing up our hands, we're immediately asking, 'What can we do with this property?'"

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