- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Deliveries were halted at a building supply company.

A gift shop’s sales were chopped in half.

The power goes out occasionally, phone service is spotty and the roads are jammed.

Baton Rouge, the Louisiana town 75 miles northwest of New Orleans, was spared much of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, but is facing challenges of its own as its businesses struggle to compete against out-of-state companies that can do relief work more quickly.

“Overall, it has created quite a bit of pressure on the business community in the Baton Rouge area,” said Stephen Moret, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce.

For Turnkey Solutions, a computer-services company and Internet provider in Baton Rouge, the power outages and damage to offices left many customers without workspace.

“The challenges start with the possibility of losing a large portion of our client base,” Turnkey co-owner John Overton said.

The company packed some clients — 24 persons — into its 12-person office.

“We have limited bandwidth, limited phone lines and limited space, but at least this was a way to help them stay in business and help us retain a customer,” Mr. Overton said.

Turnkey could have won contracts to supply Internet access to Federal Emergency Management Agency workers, but didn’t have the manpower as employees were fixing damaged homes and hosting families from the stricken areas. A Texas company was able to drive in, set up a satellite office and capture the work.

“We have competitors who have not and are not trying to find their employees or have power outages in their homes,” Mr. Overton said. “They were able to garner a lot of these FEMA contracts, where here we are right here in Baton Rouge and we didn’t even get the opportunity … to bid on these.”

Baton Rouge businesses also are making room for about 1,000 to 2,000 relocated New Orleans businesses. The town’s population of 230,000 doubled in a week.

“Most will go back, but some will be permanent,” Mr. Moret said. “There’s a whole series of new competition from New Orleans and from Houston. We have companies moving in to provide products and services for the rebuilding effort.”

Though it wasn’t directly hit by the hurricane, Baton Rouge is hoping it is not overlooked in federal recovery efforts. The chamber wants businesses to have access to the same economic benefits New Orleans businesses probably will receive, including low-interest loans and grants to make ends meet and pay employees who face reconstruction costs at home.

“The top priority is that we get all the public infrastructure and service costs paid for by the federal government, especially education, transportation and health care,” Mr. Moret said.

Businesses are trying to work without necessary supplies, many of which came from New Orleans.

Supply shipments for Ed Price Building Materials Inc., which all come from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, were stopped for a week after the hurricane.

“We have shortages of materials and several lumber mills were shut down because they have no power,” co-owner Jim Price said. “Getting inventory has been a headache.”

Sales at some retail shops fell dramatically.

“People are holding off on [purchases] right now,” said Ruth Kohler, owner of Custom Baskets-N-Gifts, a Baton Rouge gift shop where sales fell 50 percent. “Some companies are still [placing] regular orders.”

At Turnkey Solutions, Mr. Overton has provided costly hardware to business customers, some of whom may not be able to pay.

“Our policy has been to serve first and ask for payments later,” he said. “We can’t in good conscience beat these people up for money when they’re just trying to stay in business.

“Our account receivables looks pretty terrible right now.”

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