United States Gulf Coast

Creating New Economic Opportunity on the Gulf Coast

Communities re-imagine their economic development strategy at ISC's Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies Leadership Academy.

Families and businesses along the Gulf Coast are facing extraordinary economic hardship after a series of natural and human-induced catastrophes. Industries that have long fueled the region’s economy—oil and gas production, fishing, and tourism—have proven to be especially vulnerable to these disasters, and people are searching for new economic development strategies that will empower them to build more prosperous and resilient communities.

ISC launched the Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies Leadership Academy to help smaller, primarily low-income communities explore how energy efficiency, renewable energy, and ecological restoration can revitalize their economies. 20 communities from across Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana sent teams to the Academy—held over three days in New Orleans—with each team comprising local economic development leaders from the government, business, and nonprofit sectors.

A Great Opportunity

Native Louisianan Jerome Ringo—former Chairman of the National Wildlife Federation and President of the Apollo Alliance, who now heads the sustainable port company Green Port—keynoted the workshop, inspiring participants to dream big when it comes to rebuilding their economies.

“We have an opportunity to change ground zero. When it comes to impacts, the South is ground zero—we face the impacts and are the most resilient people in America,” said Ringo. “But how do we get up and create new opportunity? I believe that our greatest opportunity toward energy independence, toward a cleaner environment, and toward economic stability is in sustainability. It’s in education. It’s in training. It’s in conservation. But it’s going to require each and every one of us to have a willingness to engage everyone, and help America be America once again.”

The Gulf Coast Academy, modeled on the collaborative, peer-learning approach of ISC’s Climate Leadership Academy series, was tailored to address the concerns of the participants after intensive consultations with the community teams. They spoke of several key issues with which they have been grappling:

  • How to create alternative industries that will save money, create new jobs, and add resilience to the region’s economic base. One successful example is the 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama project, which is replanting 1000 acres of marshland and laying down 100 miles of oyster reefs, creating much-needed restoration and fisheries jobs, offering protection from storm surge and beach erosion, and restoring valuable wildlife habitat.
  • How to finance their efforts with innovative business models. The Solar and Energy Loan Fund in St. Lucie County, FL, for example, is a revolving pot of money that helps residents reduce home energy use, while promoting solar technologies—the most reliable renewable energy sources in sunny Florida.
  • How to learn from their neighbors, share resources, and forge the regional partnerships that are crucial to uniting regional economic efforts. The combined efforts of Global Green New Orleans and the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development to improve energy efficiency for low- to moderate-income residents in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward are one example.
  • How to take action immediately on returning home after many years of extended recovery planning and minimal progress on the ground. The workshop offered up many examples of replicable economic development models—such as the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio’s energy and storm-resistant home designs—that could be actionable immediately.

Taking the Energy Back Home

As each team headed home, there was a palpable sense of renewed commitment to revitalizing their communities. One town committed to reviving a post-Katrina community development taskforce and launching a community development corporation. Another is working to replicate St. Lucie’s weatherization and alternative financing model. Two organizations decided to band together to provide energy upgrades to workforce housing residents in two states.

“This has been a life changing experience for me,” said one participant from Alabama. “The energy in the room over the last three days has been awesome.” Said another, “I’ve never seen so many people come together so well and connect so deeply as quickly as this.”

And then there was the charge from Jerome Ringo:

“Some of you have grandchildren. One day your grandchild is going to look in your eyes and they’re going to say...‘Coastline is destroyed on the Gulf Coast. We make up 5% of the world’s population and use 25% of the energy and produce 30% of the world’s emissions. You sat at this workshop; how did you let this happen?’

“If you don’t have an answer today, let this conference be the beginning of your answer.”

The Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies Leadership Academy builds on ISC’s six years of work in the Gulf, during we which we helped Moss Point, MS rebuild sustainably following Hurricane Katrina, and convened the Sustainable Communities Network, which connected more than a dozen smaller, primarily low-income communities throughout the region to help revitalize their economies.

The Academy was made possible through a generous grant from the Surdna Foundation, as well as individual donations to ISC's Climate Fund. To support ISC's future work in the Gulf Coast, please click here.

The Climate Leadership Academy

The Climate Leadership Academy offers state-of-the-art training, technical assistance and mentoring programs to help cities ramp up energy efficiency, create green jobs, and tackle climate disruption.


Rebuilding Sustainably on the Gulf Coast

Local advocates and organizations are transforming New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward into a model for Gulf Coast communities looking to make themselves stronger than they were before Hurricane Katrina. ISC's Gulf Coast Sustainable Communities Network gathered there for its third meeting in October 2009.