For Jason El Koubi, One Acadiana’s misses and struggles say as much about the organization at its hits and triumphs.
There was the tax increase to support Lafayette’s public schools, which failed by a landslide. There’s the continuing effort to make complete the Interstate 49 Connector through Lafayette, no sure thing still. There’s the ever-present struggle to develop the workforce and find jobs for displaced oil-and-gas workers.
Those challenges come with a backdrop of a struggling Acadiana economy, beset with unemployment and hardship since oil and gas commodity prices plunged on this energy-rich region three years ago.
Contrast those to One Acadiana’s good times: a successful effort to promote a tax for a new airport terminal, certification of a business development site in Carencro, establishment and certification of an industrial site in Jefferson Davis Parish, election of a more progressive Lafayette school board.
There’s been triumphs, sure, El Koubi, president and CEO of One Acadiana will tell you. But if you don’t have the misses and struggles, too, then your organization hasn’t aimed high enough for its region. Sometimes, your best efforts aren’t enough.
"If you always win, you probably haven't addressed the hardest issues," El Koubi said.
Region. That one word might say more about the overarching success of One Acadiana than any other, El Koubi says. Because if One Acadiana’s mission could be expressed in single word, it’s that.
"He took the organization from a stand-alone chamber to a full, regional force," said Judi Terzotis, One Acadiana board member. Specifically, she said, he sought out diverse opinions and proved himself an able, active listener in establishing the organization that embraces nine diverse parishes today.
The nine-parish One Acadiana structure was birthed a year after El Koubi’s arrival in autumn 2013. It came after his exhaustive “listening tour,” when he met with civic, business and industrial leaders to determine their needs from what had been the Lafayette's Greater Chamber of Commerce. Over the course of three months, he said, he met with some 300 community and regional leaders, gathering information and plotting a course for a revamped organization.
What followed was the Campaign for One Acadiana, a $15 million effort to, over the course of five years, establish a new, more inclusive and vibrant organization to serve Acadiana’s needs. El Koubi never meant to foster your father’s — or mother’s — vision of a chamber of commerce.
“We had to create an organization and culture that embraces the idea we are all in it together,” El Koubi said this week, shortly after his announcement that he would leave the One Acadiana helm at the end of July to take the No. 2 position at Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the commonwealth’s rough equivalent to Louisiana Economic Development. There, El Koubi will reconnect with former LED Secretary Stephen Moret, who leads Virginia’s EDP.
"I view Jason as the perfect ally," said Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of Lafayette Economic Development Authority. "When we agreed it was great. When we didn't, it took five minutes to work it out.
"We never had a discouraging word between us," Gothreaux added. El Koubi, he said, was the perfect meld of intellect and good heartedness.
One Acadiana embraced the best intentions of nine Acadiana parishes — Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion — to best use strengths — highways and ports, land and waterways, schools and more — collaboratively.
“We wanted to align assets and leadership to go further, faster and in a sustainable way,” El Koubi said. “We wanted to create an organization and culture that embraces the idea we are all in it together.”
The result: nine parishes that worked across parish lines and myriad political subdivisions. An industrial park in Jefferson Davis became an achievement and asset for its eight partner parishes. Jobs in northern St. Landry became cause for celebration in Lafayette. Someday, El Koubi might add, completion of the I-49 Connector will provide some lifeblood to every One Acadiana parish.
"Several folks thought we were crazy," El Koubi said of One Acadiana's fledgling efforts after his arrival. But 150 investors and almost 1,000 members thought otherwise.
The goals, El Koubi said, were to make Acadiana more competitive for business and industrial investment, to market and sell the region to outside investment and talent and to revitalize the urban core.
Lafayette and Acadiana hold the assets, "raw ingredients," for success: including higher education and cultural vibrancy. "It had not organized itself to be successful," he added.
Why those nine parishes? It was "never clear" it would be those nine," El Koubi said. But the effort started with the seven members of Acadiana Economic Development and added neighbors Jefferson Davis and St. Mary, who bought into the regional concept.
Like leaders from all the parishes, though, the newcomers appreciated the importance and potential of regional collaboration. A larger, unified region could get more resources from state and federal government. It could improve its transportation system. It could better develop and market its workforce.
One Acadiana's interest in public education, K-doctorate, has benefited the school systems and college campuses within the nine parishes. Most have improved their resources and performances.
The organization's strength, he said, was in responding to the needs and aspirations of its partners. By developing an elite staff — professional, smart, collaborative, passionate — he said, One Acadiana is poised for greater results for years to come.
"We are disappointed to lose Jason, who has been an exceptional leader for our organization and community; however, the ongoing initiatives that Jason developed in partnership with our Board of Directors, investors, members and partners, coupled with a very capable and committed staff, position One Acadiana to accelerate its impact on improving our area's economic competitiveness," said Donald Broussard, One Acadiana's chairman-elect and chief financial officer for The Lemoine Co.
"He leaves a wonderful, talented staff behind to work with us in the interim," Gothreaux said.
There are those unmet challenges, though, and El Koubi says they loom large and threatening to the region. If you allow your roads and infrastructure to crumble, he said, if you allow your schools to decay, "all the finger-pointing in the world" won't help.
Nonetheless, he said, Acadiana remains rich in resources and appeal. He said the region welcomed him and his family, for which he is grateful. A graduate of the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts and LSU's engineering program, the state remains home and he says the El Koubis — his wife, Allison, has been a highly valued school principal here — may return someday.