Notes From the New Orleans Study Mission :: Believe it, Live it

Ryan Porter, 2012 Metro EDGE Vice Chair, participated in the Sacramento Metro Chamber Study Mission in New Orleans last fall. Here he shares some of the key ideas and lessons he left with and how they can apply to the future of Sacramento.

In each of the past 13 years, the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce has sent some of the best and brightest our region has to offer on an annual Study Mission to a different US city in search of an answer to one specific question: “What are the keys to a successful city?” This year, I was lucky enough to join 75 regional business and civic leaders for a four-day trip to New Orleans, Louisiana to determine what The Big Easy could teach us. Over the course of the trip I found that New Orleans had focused on a few specific themes when rebuilding their city: public safety, culture and identity. Sacramento will need to acknowledge and address these issues in order for our region to develop into the national destination we all envision it becoming.

For non-residents like myself, it is hard to think of New Orleans without immediately thinking about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Even six years later, our group could still see the reeling effects from the disaster during our own lower 9th ward bus tour. Residents admit that much has been done, but much more rebuilding still lies ahead. Most apparently however, residents seemed to agree that Katrina was a manmade disaster, and that the destruction was avoidable. Choices, decisions and prioritizations led to the failing levies, which in turn caused the vast majority of damage. It is a sad fact, but an encouraging one at the same time since it would imply that the opposite could also be true. Our pro-active choices and decisions could prevent similar incidents. New Orleans’ residents now take a more active ownership role in the policy discussions which will shape their city going forward. The mantra of the New Orleans Civic leaders was that human will, not Katrina, was the catalyst for change. Their advice for Sacramento was simple: Don’t wait until it is too late.

Post Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers rated Sacramento to have the highest exposure for flood devastation in the nation. How can our great city expect to thrive as a national destination if we can’t even ensure the safety of our own residents? Civic leaders, elected officials and the residents of Sacramento should all heed the advice of New Orleans. We need to band together, get informed and address these regional concerns while they are still under our control.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the second and third themes that come to mind when I think of New Orleans are Culture and Identity. More specifically New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras, and I expect nothing less from a city nicknamed “The Big Easy”. Love it or hate it, everyone seems to have an opinion about this annual party full of debauchery and the city that hosts it. New Orleans has done what other cities fear to do: embrace its identity. Mardi Gras has been engrained into the culture of all New Orleans’ residents, and instead of shunning the negative connotations associated with it, the city has turned it into a two billion dollar-a-year revenue generator. They play to their strengths and have developed a strong sense of civic identity over the course of the city’s illustrious history. If you ask New Orleans’ residents what is so great about their city, they will give you a laundry list of reasons and qualities, but at the end of the day they will sum it up by saying their town just has “it”.

I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret, Sacramento has it too. No, not the same culture and identity that New Orleans or any other city has, but our very own unique brand. We need to embrace our identity. We have some of the best weather and freshest food this nation has to offer. We have a strong political landscape. We have a magnificent community and family atmosphere. However, we seem to lack the civic pride and confidence needed to show just how wonderful our region is. We need to learn from New Orleans and take it upon ourselves to answer one simple question: “What does Sacramento mean to me?” Once we answer that, it’s up to us to shout from a mountain top about it.

Because if we believe it, and if we live it, then everyone else just might want it.