The Third Coast: From Brownsville to Tampa Bay, an economic powerhouse emerges.
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.