Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne spoke about the important role tourism plays in Louisiana’s economy to a group of Washington Parish businesspeople, politicians and active community members assembled in Pine Tuesday night.
Dardenne was guest speaker at the installation banquet and annual meeting of the Franklinton Chamber of Commerce, Franklinton Area Economic Development Foundation and Washington Parish Economic Development Foundation, held at Pine Seafood & Steak Restaurant.
Welcoming Dardenne, who was re-elected to a four-year term October 2011 after finishing out the final year of an unexpired term, was Franklinton Mayor Wayne Fleming. Dardenne was Louisiana’s secretary of state for four years and also served 15 years as a state senator.
“It is a pleasure for me to introduce this man,” Fleming said. “He does a wonderful job for the state of Louisiana.”
Dardenne discussed his role as lieutenant governor.
“I get to talk about the many great things about our state that we sometimes take for granted,” he said.
When Dardenne took office he immediately eliminated the $130,000-position of the secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, because, he reasoned, the people elected him to run the department. The move, he said, has worked out well.
“It’s enabled me to have a hands-on relationship with the folks who actually do the work to make Louisiana a much greater place,” he said.
Among the department’s responsibilities is running the state library, “a simple building in downtown Baton Rouge.” It’s not a circulating library and doesn’t loan out books, he said. Though the ability to do so has been hampered by state budget cuts, his office provides Internet service for all parish libraries in a state where less than 50 percent of residents have Internet access at home, he said.
“Our state library does that, and we’re facing some real challenges right now, but we’re going to continue doing that as long as we possibly can,” he said.
The department also heads the state museum system and the state parks system. Dardenne discussed the current status of Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, which was devastated by Hurricane Isaac. The cabins had just been rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina, but are now unusable, he said.
“With the budget situation we’re facing, one of our real concerns is having the ability to just put up or match money with FEMA to be able to rebuild those facilities and get them back online,” he said. “It’s our most popular park.
“It generates the most income from us, but if we can’t rent the rooms, we’re not going to make any money. So it’s very important we find the dollars to be able to do that.”
The state parks’ budget recently received a $4 million cut, Dardenne said.
Additionally, Dardenne’s office is responsible for the arts, “one of the great legacies of Louisiana,” and oversees the Volunteer Louisiana program, which is funded entirely through federal grants and coordinates volunteer activities throughout the state.
Promoting tourism and drawing visitors to Louisiana, however, is Dardenne’s main charge.
“For every dollar we spend on advertising Louisiana out of state, we’re going to bring $17 back to the state of Louisiana,” he said.
Those independent-study findings demonstrate that the state needs to invest in tourism, Dardenne said.
“You’re not going to find a return on investment like that anywhere,” he said.
That, Dardenne said, is why he has “been very vocal in my concerns about the way in which the tourism budget has been treated.”
The budget is funded entirely through sales tax dollars, where 3/100 of every penny spent in the state goes to tourism. That sales tax generates about $23 million a year, but the administration, with the cooperation of the state Legislature, has “carved out about $12 million of that,” Dardenne said.
“It goes out the window before we have a chance to spend it to promote Louisiana,” he said. “That’s very frustrating, because we know if we spend money out of state to tell people all the great things about Louisiana, they’re going to come visit.”
Tourism, Dardene said, is a $10 billion industry for the state, and one out of every 11 Louisianans works in the hospitality industry. Since he has taken office more than 2,000 new jobs in tourism have been created, he said.
“My message is that tourism is big business for Louisiana,” he said. “It’s an industry for Louisiana. It’s one of the few areas of government that makes money to enable us to fund the priorities of government, which are education, healthcare and public safety.”
The brand of Dardenne’s office is “Pick your Passion,” and he said the state’s citizens are passionate about many things, including outdoor life and hunting and fishing and Louisiana’s traditions, food, music and festivals. He noted the state hosts 400 festivals each year.
“If something walks, crawls, flies or swims, we have a festival to salute them. Then we throw them in gumbo and eat them,” he said. “These are things that we sometimes take for granted, but people outside of Louisiana are fascinated by who we are as people.”
Dardenne then launched into a lively and entertaining history of the state, beginning with its birth about 3,500 years ago with the settlement at Poverty Point, and including a discussion of a number of memorable figures in Louisiana politics.
The span of time in between Huey P. Long’s election to the governor seat in 1928, U.S. Senate seat win in 1930, taking office in 1932, and his death in 1935 were “seven years that forever changed Louisiana politics and, arguably, American politics,” Dardenne said.
During Long’s first year as governor, 8,000 miles of roads were paved for the first time, construction started on dozes on bridges and all children in the state got free textbooks, Dardenne said.
“And all the while, 23 of his immediate family members were on the state payroll,” he said. “He was acting as the lawyer for whatever state agency was paying the most in legal fees, and he was collecting from every state employee 10 percent of their paychecks that went into his infamous deduct box, because it was deducted from their pay and used to support the political campaigns of his cronies.”
Dardenne also talked about Long’s successor, O.K. Allen.
“They used to say O.K. Allen was so agreeable with whatever Huey wanted that if a leaf blew in and landed on his desk, he’d sign it,” he said.
The mix of cultures in Louisiana makes it possible that Long — and other politicians like governors Earl Long, Jimmie Davis and Edwin W. Edwards and Sheriff Cat Doucet — could be elected in the same state that, today, has the nation’s first Indian-American governor, Dardenne said.
A poll published in Science Magazine a couple of years ago listed Louisiana as the happiest state in America, Dardenne said.
“We love who we are as a people, and we love where we are as a people,” he said. “We care for one another, and what a tribute that is to Louisianans.”
Dardenne said he has fun getting out on a daily basis to promote Louisiana and enjoys talking about the state.
“I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you tonight, and I thank you for what you’re doing to generate the economy of Washington Parish, to work together and to try to make good things happen,” he said. “Despite the many challenges we have, I think our better days are ahead of us.”