|Philippe Gustin, left, and Christophe Pilut|
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Working hand-in-hand with local and regional economic development groups, Le Centre shines an international spotlight on the Cajun economy.
By Ted McManus
Not only do Philippe Gustin and Christophe Pilut parlez the language of international business, they also fully comprendez the importance of expanding into the global marketplace.
A native of Belgium and longtime Lafayette resident, Gustin is manager of Le Centre International de Lafayette, which is housed in the heart of downtown inside the former City Hall building at 735 Jefferson St.
“I can remember paying my utility bill right here in this room,” Gustin says from his seat at the head of the table in Le Centre’s spacious conference room. Pilut, who hails from France, keeps especially busy as Le Centre’s information and translation specialist on a wide variety of business and tourism ventures.
Both are firm believers in the need for more South Louisiana companies to get involved in entering export trade agreements with customers around the world.
As a division of Lafayette Consolidated Government, Le Centre has worked hand-in-hand with local and regional economic development efforts such as the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and the newly-formed Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, based in Lake Charles.
Their message cannot be stressed enough, according to Gustin. “Attracting international corporations to Lafayette and Acadiana requires a great deal of coordination at the local, regional and state levels,” he says. That’s where Le Centre and LEDA come in.
Since its inception in 1989 under the administration of then-mayor Dud Lastrapes, Le Centre’s mission has been the same — to increase international trade and tourism in the Lafayette area.
“We knew from the beginning that the promotion of international trade cannot be limited to the city limits,” Gustin points out, noting that some of the area’s most prodigious exporters include Bruce Foods of Cade and Tabasco of Avery Island.
“It’s impossible to talk about international trade and restrict it to a few square miles,” Gustin says. “Dud Lastrapes understood that very well.”
Although Le Centre operates under the auspices of LCG, Gustin explains, “we are really a municipal organization with a regional mission to increase business and tourism opportunities here.” Tourism is such a big part of the equation because of the high volume of jobs and revenue it creates, he adds.
“People from around the world come to Lafayette, and South Louisiana as a whole, to experience the food, culture and music we have to offer,” Gustin says, citing the popularity of Festival International as a prime example.
|Vivian Alexander's Alex Caldwell|
Putting Lafayette on the proverbial map has always been a top priority for Le Centre, which also worked closely with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana in organizing Festivals Acadiens et Creole, which predated Festival International.
“Those projects certainly became bigger than we had envisioned at the beginning,” Gustin says.
On the morning of this interview, Gustin and Pilut had entertained visitors from Senegal, and issued them an invitation to return to Lafayette in October with a delegation of officials to attend the biannual Louisiana Gulf Coast Oil Exposition.
Steven Romero, vice president of Tabasco, joined them for that meeting to help illustrate how the food, culture and music of South Louisiana is “part of everything we do,” Gustin says.
It is rare to attend any function for an oil and gas company without finding some sort of Cajun food being served there, he adds. That Cajun culture has created many ties between South Louisiana companies working overseas and the host countries.
Take Scotland, for instance. Louisiana oil patch workers took their culture there, drawing many Scottish companies to this area.
Such diplomacy has paved the way for Le Centre and LEDA to work jointly on projects to attract more UK companies to Acadiana, through an initiative launched by the state Department of Economic Development.
“We owe so much to the oil and gas industry,” says Gustin. “This area would not be known internationally like it is today without it. Probably more than anything else, when you really think about it, the oil and gas industry has put Lafayette on the world map.”
LEDA’s mission, Gustin says, is different from Le Centre’s because it is a true economic development agency involved in selling land and buildings, in addition to seeking out skilled labor and tax incentives. When Le Centre identifies an international business lead, for example, the prospect is courted up until the time a request is made for land and building space, labor training and tax incentives. At that point, the transaction is turned over to LEDA officials to seal the deal.
Le Centre’s primary purpose is to promote international trade — exporting our goods and services to the rest of the world.
There are instances in which Le Centre is able to find goods and services overseas for import back to Acadiana as well. Often, local companies need a component manufactured internationally to be able to assemble a better product or be more competitive here, so a relationship is established between the producer and customer.
Besides its close relationship with LEDA, Le Centre’s mission is also greatly aided by its association with the U.S. Department of Commerce office in New Orleans, where former Le Centre employee Delilah Desouza is southwest Louisiana representative.
South Louisiana’s global presence has been recognized throughout Europe. Recently, a series of articles acknowledged Cajun musicians, artists and artisans who took part in a pre-Christmas festival held in Montbeliard, located on the French and Swiss border.
“We thought maybe we’ll get mentioned in a few newspaper articles, and this is what we got,” Gustin says, displaying a scrapbook several inches thick, filled with articles and photos of the South Louisiana visitors.
Lafayette only spent around $5,000 on the trip. “You can’t buy the kind of publicity we received in return. It really was quite overwhelming,” says Gustin.
The venture has launched an international music program initiative being spearheaded by Pilut, local musician Louie Michot and other event organizers. That new program aims to match local musicians with concerts and festivals being held across the globe, making it possible for musicians to perform abroad on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. Typically, musicians must make multiple return engagements to recover their expenses and earn enough to make a living.
Another focus for Le Centre in recent years has been the local Hispanic community.
To help people with Hispanic roots become better acclimated to life in South Louisiana, the Acadiana Association of Latin Americans has been formed. The goal of that effort is to help integrate Hispanics living and working here into the population, allowing them to become more active and productive members of society. One of the products of that effort has been the publication of La Revista, a newspaper written in both Spanish and English, offering local news to Latin American readers.
Catering to those with Cajun roots is likewise an ongoing campaign for Le Centre. Gustin points out that the Grand Réveil Acadien (The Great Cajun Awakening) will be held Oct. 7-16, 2011, at sites located across South Louisiana. The preliminary schedule calls for events in New Orleans, Houma, Lake Charles, Lafayette and their surrounding regions within the 22-parish Acadiana region.
That event’s stated mission is to “awaken the population of Louisiana, primarily those of Acadian descent and the youth, to the realization that our language, culture and coastal lands are being threatened.”
The GRA is a spinoff of Congrès Mondial Acadians (World Congress of the Acadians), which is held every five years at sites rich with Acadian history. Lafayette hosted that event in 1999 and also unsuccessfully bid on the one in 2014. The upcoming Congrès Mondial will be held in the two-country region of Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick. Organizers of the 2014 event will be on hand at the GRA to promote their activities. Gustin says Lafayette will bid again, because of the multi-million financial impact it has on the region.
Currently, Le Centre has been working with three students in UL Lafayette’s Business Department, recruiting local companies to attend the upcoming FuturAllia trade show, to be held May 18-20 in Kansas City. FuturAllia was conceived 20 years ago in Lafayette’s sister city of Poitiers, France. This year’s international forum’s theme is “Open the Door to a World of Business” and is expected to feature 800 businesses from 30 countries.
Paula Phillips Carson, assistant vice president for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at UL, says FuturAllia promises “a low-cost, low-risk venue for exploring relationships with supply chain partners from across the globe.”
“The organization of FuturAllia allows for both structured and informal interactions that can infuse your business with new ideas, initiatives and customers,” Carson adds. “And even after participants return home, the culture of follow-up ensures that attendance generates valuable business transactions.”