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Launching enterprise 'starships'

One of the most talked-about plants in Louisiana isn't even built yet: SFE Technologies' capacitor production facility, under construction in the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District in east New Orleans.

All around Louisiana people are pointing to it as one of the most conspicuous successes of their statewide ''enterprise zone'' program.

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A dozen states have legislation for such programs on their books, but the Bayou State is claiming to have the first program actually granting benefits.

Under the legislation here, passed in September 1981, the most ''economically distressed'' 25 percent of all census districts in the state - 983 in all - were declared eligible to apply for designation as enterprise zones.

The program grants tax incentives to companies that locate in a zone or are already there when a zone is designated, if 35 percent of their workers live in the zone or next to it, were receiving public assistance before going to work, or were considered ''unemployable by traditional standards.'' Companies meeting these rather flexible requirements can qualify for generous local and state tax breaks.

Also, businesses applying for industrial revenue bonds, small-business assistance, or other special programs are given special preference if they locate in enterprise zones. The state's standing offer to train, free, the workers necessary for any new or expanded plant is expected to be another big plus.

One of the criticisms leveled at enterprise zones in this country and abroad is that they tend to export unemployment: A factory shuts down in one location, firing all its workers, and then moves to an enterprise zone to get tax benefits. Net job creation is zero but the tax breaks eat a hole in governmental budgets.

State officials claim they have found a way around this one with their rule disqualifying from the program firms found to have laid off workers before relocating in the zone, according to Paul Adams of the state commerce department.

So far agreements for enterprise zone locations have been concluded with 14 companies; these are expected to produce 1,400 permanent jobs. Besides SFE Technologies, other proudly hailed catches have included Bayliner Marine Corporation, a Seattle-based maker of fiber-glass boats, setting up a plant outside Shreveport; Ultralift, a California maker of hydraulic equipment, setting up in Washington Parish, north of New Orleans; and a homegrown firm, TANO Corporation, a New Orleans-based maker of electronic control systems for the marine and energy markets.

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It's not always clear just what effect special initiatives have. In the case of SFE Technologies, Robert Kassel, division president, notes, ''A move is generated by so many reasons, but the program was surely a contributing factor.''

He says New Orleans has made his company feel very welcome. He cites a number of inducements, such as industrial revenue bonds and an urban development grant, that gave the city the edge over other candidates such as San Antonio and Tucson , Ariz.

Both private and public sectors have been ''absolutely supportive,'' he says, and he praises the school systems as well.

SFE hopes to have to move ''only a handful'' of people from California and hire locally the rest of the 250 or so workers it will need at the plant, which will make capacitors for major companies such as Burroughs, Raytheon, and Intel.

Mr. Kassel defines ''locally'' rather broadly when he speaks of where SFE will hire its engineers - within a radius between New Orleans and Houston. But he is still confident that SFE will find enough people within the enterprise zone itself to qualify for the tax breaks.

''We're excited by the potential that exists there.''

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