Vermilion Parish has become a model for growth and the community is telling this story far and wide, pro-moting its strengths and identifying gaps in its services and amenities that need to be filled to better recognize its full potential.
Recently, Vermilion Economic Development Alliance partnered with One Acadiana on the Focused on Forward initiative to showcase the region’s greatest assets, demonstrating how it is working together to move forward to become the best version of itself.
“The idea is that it’s about progress. It’s about going some-where. There is a directionality to it,” said Anne Falgout, executive director of the Vermilion Economic Development Alliance. Vermilion Parish knows where it wants to go and what kind of economy and community it wants to be – and it has a plan to get there.
According to Falgout, “Our long-term goals are all about that long range look at what the ideal version of our community is,” and to get there, the Alliance is supporting strong economic performance in its various clusters and developing a suitable workforce to support opportunities that arise.
Vermilion Parish’s economic strength comes from well-established industries like oil and gas, agriculture, and tourism and recreation. Great strides have been made to diversify its local industries to strengthen the economy to be resilient even in down market cycles. Service providers in the region have found a way to reconfigure their equipment and skill sets to be relevant in other markets such as agriculture, transportation and logistics, shipbuilding, marine industries, decommissioning services, heavy industrial construction.
“We want to diversify with oil and gas, not away from it. As the industry changes with more alternative energy and we have more renewable energies, natural gas is playing a bigger role in that industry and we want to evolve with that because we still have the technology; we still have the expertise and a work-force that is very knowledgeable,” said Falgout.
“There is a huge boom in natural gas exploration in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is just about an hour away from us. We do have a lot of people who were engaged in the oil and gas industry maybe travelling to offshore waters that are now onshore. Others with expertise in the energy industry are also seeing success as they transition to related fields in construction and marine operations. Now more than ever, entrepreneurship is playing a role in our communities and small businesses are answering the call for new services caused by changes in the industry,” explained Falgout.
Another attempt to diversify its homegrown industries is evident in the parish bringing together tourism, recreation and agriculture. Its location on the Gulf of Mexico and its rich history, bountiful agricultural land and natural endowments leaves it inclined to support tourism offshoots like agritourism and ecotourism.
Agritourism is an opportunity for the many family farms in the region to grow in sustainable ways. By creating a tourism com-ponent within their existing agricultural operations, it provides a true sense of understanding about how agriculture is produced and why it remains a vital part of the regional economy.
A shining example of agritourism is a local bed and breakfast called Miss Rose’s Bed and Breakfast and Crawfish Haven. The crawfish farm, which is typically a rice farm out of season, offers guests opportunities to catch the crawfish that they will enjoy for dinner. Given the importance of crawfish to the culture and economy of the region, it offers a truly authentic experience.
The Vermilion Economic Development Alliance is hoping to replicate this model for the shrimping industry, whereby visitors could take a boat excursion to gain insight and appreciation for how shrimp gets from the sea to the table. Farm or sea to table is a rapidly growing niche market Vermilion Parish can easily grow into.
Another initiative to diversify agriculture is through an exercise in private label farms and branded agricultural products. The community is experiencing great success with the first of many branded products from the region: Vermilion Bay Sweet Shrimp.
“That basically created a co-op for the shrimpers to come in and, rather than selling their shrimp to a processing facility or a packaging plant, and having to go through that process them-selves, now they provide an infrastructure to actually package under a Vermilion Parish brand,” Falgout explained. That line has been expanded to include a black drum fish fillet and work is underway to adapt the model for application in the cattle industry. Falgout is currently exploring the scope for a feasibility study to focus on the best course of action to brand and sustain the already successful beef industry that exists in Vermilion Parish.
“We do have several farmers who are raising grass-fed beef. I had one cowboy tell me that, ‘we were grass-fed before it was cool, and we were just doing the right thing and raising our cows.’ We don’t grow corn here in Louisiana, so many of the herds are grass-fed, pasture-raised and have no antibiotics or hormones,” which is another important niche market to break into.
“Because agriculture is such a big part of our economy, we have to treat these farms as the businesses they are. They have employees, they have equipment, they have vendors and they have needs. They also have opportunities they can take advantage of, and we want to help them explore what’s available.”
Workforce development has been and continues to be a priority of the Vermilion Economic Development Alliance and its partner, the South Louisiana Community College. One of the organization’s crowning achievements to date is its annual job fair, which is now in its third year. Vermilion Economic Development Alliance takes a three-pronged approach to workforce development offering a job-seeker training series, an employer workshop and the job fair itself, which brings job seekers together with opportunities in the region.
Prospective employees learn work readiness, interview preparation, and much more, while the employer workshop invites companies in the region to visit the community college where employer-specific sessions are held. By hosting the event at the community college, the business community as well as education and training institutions are brought together to ensure the needs of both are being communicated and addressed through relevant programming and curriculum. It also gives students an opportunity to network and to see what careers are available.
As a bonus on the workforce development front, the community college, in partnership with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, recently assumed control of the local career centers, further strengthening the connectivity enjoyed between job seekers, education and industry. Vermilion Economic Development Alliance and the community college also jointly hosted a breakfast program called Wake Up With Workforce to bring together the business community and education to reinforce the pipeline of available talent.
To be sure, Vermilion Parish is home to a hard-working popula-tion with diverse skill sets that can be taken advantage of across sectors and across borders. Residents have been described as inventive and are resilient in the face of economic challenge or instances of extreme weather that result in flooding.
On a regional level, Falgout explained, “The Acadiana Planning Commission, a regional organization, has appointed the president from each of the parishes (counties) in the region to a board for regional planning efforts. We were awarded over $20 million from the state to begin some infrastructure projects that mitigate the problems that arose from rainwater or flooding.”
In addition to infrastructure and water management, place-making is a very important activity to make Vermilion Parish an attractive place to live, and investments are being made to this end. Downtown Abbeville is a federally designated Main Street community and because of that designation, it is eligible for federal and state dollars for façade improvements, historical renovations and other similar projects. The downtown district was also recently declared an Opportunity Zone which will aid local partners in their efforts to attract interest from all parts of the country.
“We want to be able to replicate that in other communities in our parish: creative placemaking. Creating a sense of place in each of our five downtowns and creating linkages between all parts of Vermilion,” explained Falgout, who seeks to create an “urban oasis inside a rural community.”
Through a plan called Destination Downtown, Vermilion Economic Development Alliance is marketing all that is available in the downtown; in the works is a series of visioning events with hopes of communicating the potential of the available spaces for development. There are also efforts underway to have one of its towns, Kaplan, designated as a retirement community, making it feel welcoming for all ages and demographics.
The secret to Vermilion Parish’s success is smart strategy, a concise plan to achieve its desired outcomes, a committed economic development team, collaborative partnerships and the strength of a workforce backing it. Vermilion Parish is developing sustainably, finding ways to move forward together. Vermilion Parish has a story to tell, one that is being written to ensure there is a long and happy ending of economic prosperity and community vitality for all.