The Rise of the Third Coast
In the wilds of Louisiana’s St. James Parish, amid the alligators and sugar plantations, Lester Hart is building the $750 million steel plant of his dreams. Over the past decade, Hart has constructed plants for steel producer Nucor everywhere from Trinidad to North Carolina. Today, he says, Nucor sees its big opportunities here, along the banks of the Mississippi River, roughly an hour west of New Orleans by car.
“The political climate here is conducive to growth,” Hart explains as he steers his truck up to the edge of a steep levee. “We are here because so much is going on in this state and this region. With the growth of the petrochemical and industrial sectors, this is the place to be.” Already, some 500 people are working on the project. When completed in 2013, the plant—which is expected to process more than 3.75 million tons of iron ore a year—will create about 150 permanent jobs immediately. Another 150 are expected after a second development phase.
Nucor isn’t alone in coming to Louisiana, or to the vast, emerging region along the Gulf Coast. The American economy, long dominated by the East and West Coasts, is undergoing a dramatic geographic shift toward this area. The country’s next great megacity, Houston, is here; so is a resurgent New Orleans, as well as other growing port cities that serve as gateways to Latin America and beyond. While the other two coasts struggle with economic stagnation and dysfunctional politics, the Third Coast—the urbanized, broadly coastal region spanning the Gulf from Brownsville, Texas, to greater Tampa—is emerging as a center of industry, innovation, and economic growth.
The Gulf area long lacked industry. Even when the Spaniards and the French ruled it, the Gulf was a planters’ region, and its economy was largely dependent on exports of indigo, sugar, and cotton. The economy also relied on the slave labor that made such exports possible, a state of affairs that continued until the Civil War. After the war, the region therefore lost much of its economic influence as growth shifted to the rail-dominated east-west axis, though the construction of the Panama Canal eventually helped New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, again become busy ports. Developing slowly, the Third Coast’s agricultural economy was dominated largely by tenant farmers, who in 1930 constituted more than 60 percent of the agricultural producers in an arc from Texas to Georgia.
The Gulf region also suffered from vulnerability to natural disasters. In 1900, more than a century before Katrina, the deadliest hurricane in American history all but destroyed Galveston, Texas. In 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood inundated a 27,000-square-mile area, much of it in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And then there was the hot and humid climate, especially miserable in those pre-air-conditioning days.
What Joel Garreau, in his landmark book The Nine Nations of North America, writes about the South as a whole—that it became a “region identified with stagnation—backward, rural, poor and racist, a colony of the industrialized north, enamored of an allegedly glorious past of dubious authenticity”—applied with particular force to the Gulf Coast, whose major cities, especially New Orleans, were seen as hopelessly corrupt and decadent. It’s no surprise that for much of the last century, the region exported people, particularly those with skills, to other parts of the United States.
So it’s particularly striking that the region’s steady economic growth is now attracting so many people. Over the past decade, Texas and Florida have ranked first and second among the states in net domestic immigration, combining for a gain of roughly 2 million people. Together, Houston and Tampa have gained more than 1.5 million people over the course of the decade; in fact, in 2008 and 2009, net domestic migration to Houston was the highest of any major metropolitan area. An examination of migration flows to Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa by Praxis Strategy Group, where I work as a senior consultant, shows that many of their new citizens are coming from the East and West Coasts, especially New York and California. Also over the past decade, Houston has attracted as many foreign immigrants, relative to its population, as New York has—a considerably higher rate than in such historical immigration hubs as Chicago, Seattle, and Boston, though still lower than in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami....MORE