By Nick BeJeaux
The entrance of the International Business Machines Corporation, colloquially known as IBM, to the Baton Rouge business scene is making waves, sparking enthusiasm and hope for the future during a time of tough financial realities.
Earlier this month IBM opened the doors of its Service Center, which is on track to employ at least 800 people by 2017. The Center, which is part of a $55 million downtown development project to include stores, apartments, and more, houses operations that develop applications and provide application management and system integration for IBM clientele. Already, many local businesses are starting to see an influx of business because of the Center’s current staff of 200, and Downtown Development District Executive Chair Davis Rhorer says this surge is the beginning of great things to come.
“Obviously you’re bringing new employment into the city and to the Downtown area, and that’s always healthy because you’re bringing in new ideas and new ways of doing things,” Rhorer said.
Baton Rouge has been known as a corporate base for decades, with many artists in the community trying to shift away from that image to a more cultural one. Some may see adding a big corporation like IBM to the mix would be detrimental to that vision, but Rhorer says that all the evidence points to the contrary.
“It diversifies the economy, and that’s healthier for everybody; to have diverse types of employment,” he said. “Just look at Third Street. We’ve got a Matherne’s Grocery Store, bars, we’re going to have a hotel, restaurants, and eventually more residential space. That just makes a very interesting space to me. IBM is just a part of spreading that and we are very welcoming of them coming to downtown.”
Besides the economic impact it will have, IBM’s presence has the added benefit of helping solidify the more ambitious projects, like the Nicholson Corridor Streetcar line.
“It builds the stability and predictability for those projects that follow. We’ll soon be working on a streetcar line from the middle of Downtown all the way down the Nicholson Corridor to LSU,” said Rhorer. “There will be 800-plus employees in this new Center and if they want to be a part of the Water Campus, the Corridor, LSU and Downtown, and vice versa, this streetcar is one of the developments that will link it all together.”
But Rhorer thinks that IBM will also have an affect on a different kind of transportation, one that Baton Rouge is beginning to heavily invest in.
“Across the country right now (and not just the country, but the world) biking is becoming far more serious as a means of transportation to job centers besides recreation,” he said. “Baton Rouge is getting very serious about biking; I know the project we have to create new paths that will take you from Downtown to City Park is about $3 million. One of those paths, by the way, goes down River Road right in front of the IBM Center.”
Rhorer said that because of IBM’s residual effects on existing projects designed to link LSU with downtown, the company’s presence has invariably touched the University.
“It’s important to have nodes of employment, like downtown, and LSU is a node for the student base,” he said. “I think it will all work very well together. In the case of IBM, I know LSU has restructured some of their curricula to help meet the demands that IBM has.”
Heather Herman, senior director of external relations for LSU’s College of Engineering, said that when IBM made its plans known two years ago, the college reached out to the company to help evaluate how best to ride this IT wave.
“We look at trends, not just for Baton rouge or IBM, but the IT industry in general,” she said. “The leadership looked at where technology may be twenty years from now, and saw that analytics and cloud computing is the direction IT is going in. We decided to add two new concentrations, Data Analytics and Cloud Networking, and IBM brought in experts from around the world working in these fields. They helped us look at our existing curricula and develop new course offerings that would train graduates to work with these technologies.”
Along with new curricula, Herman says that IBM has also brought nearly boundless opportunities to students of the College of Engineering.
“They offer entry level positions for our student right here in the Baton Rouge area but it also exposes them to other opportunities within IBM,” she said. “IBM is a worldwide corporation, and what’s most exciting to us is that our students can start working for them right here; after that the sky’s the limit as far as their career goes—they will have the opportunity work all over the world.”
IBM was unable to respond to our emails and phone calls by press time. For more information on the Services Center, check out ibmlouisiana.com