In The News › Economic developers say New Orleans could become a medical hub but has challenges

Economic developers say New Orleans could become a medical hub but has challenges

By Mark Waller

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

September 23, 2014

With the massive hospital complex rising in Mid-City and existing research unfolding at universities around New Orleans, economic developers see the city as a growing center for the health care industry. In a discussion Tuesday (Sept. 23) speakers said efforts such as enhancing the available workforce and luring top researchers from other locations could determine how fully that vision materializes.

“We’re sitting in the midst of one of the greatest economic development investments in New Orleans in a generation,” said Luis Zervigon, a member of the Bureau of Governmental Research board of directors, introducing a session hosted by the group. The talk took place at the Louisiana Cancer Research Center on Tulane Avenue as construction continued on the pair of hospitals across the street.

Both of the highlighted speakers, Aaron Miscenich, who runs the New Orleans BioInnovation Center startup incubator on Canal Street and the Cancer Research Center, and Michael Hecht, president of the Greater New Orleans, Inc., economic development group, said they are optimistic about the city’s potential as a biomedical hub.

Miscenich covered reasons why the sector is a priority. The jobs tend to pay well and to spur the creation of additional support jobs. Construction of the Veterans Affairs Hospital and University Medical Center present a moment of opportunity. Research work already is underway at universities.

“You see a sense of entrepreneurship, you see cooperation among the institutions and the researchers themselves,” in the research realm, he said.

A challenge is that government grant money for research is declining, Miscenich said. Pursuing investment capital is an important factor, he said.

“One of the key critical pieces for New Orleans and Louisiana in general is workforce,” Miscenich said. “We need a workforce that knows how to work in a lab environment, in a clinical environment.”

He also said the city needs to ensure its lifestyle amenities are attractive to researchers moving their families and teams. And retaining new companies also needs attention.

“We have companies outgrowing the BioInnovation Center and we need a place for them to land,” he said.

Hecht said the city has to get more from the new hospitals than the immediate services offered there, though those are important. The medical core also must attract other enterprises and spawn new companies for the project to achieve the fullest potential, he said.

“It only becomes economic development if you’re bringing in the new,” he said.

He also described the vast Texas Medical Center in Houston accounting for 25 percent of the hotel stays in the city.

“That’s destination health care, and that’s economic development because entire families are coming and they’re spending,” Hecht said.

Another main prong in the effort is to attract researchers with financial incentives. Hecht’s GNO Inc. pushed for Louisiana to create a MediFund to offer financial support to researchers, though the group still seeks a funding source for the program. Hecht mentioned cigarette taxes as a possibility.

Hecht suggested New Orleans industry promoters should identify medical services likely to see high demand in coming years and focus on making the city a hub for those kinds of treatment.

New Orleans has an opportunity to serve as the primary medical center in the Gulf Coast region outside of Houston, he said. “Nobody else owns this right now,” he said.

He described bright overall economic prospects for New Orleans. “There’s no place in America today where you can get our level of culture at a low cost,” Hecht said. “This combination, nobody else can offer.”

He said the need to grow the workforce is reaching acute levels but that, “These are growing pains. But it’s nice to have growing pains for the first time in 40 years.”

In 10 years, Hecht said, he thinks the city will reach “a position of importance and power and relevance that we haven’t had since the 70s.”

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