Kyle Price never considered staying in Baton Rouge after graduation.
Price, a 22-year-old Houston native, spent most of his childhood summers in the Capital Region visiting extended family members. And he chose LSU when it was time to attend college.
But, after graduating in May, Price made a beeline for Austin.
“There’s a very different lifestyle here,” he says from his new home. “There are a lot of similarities. They’re both capital cities, but there is a younger feel here. Baton Rouge doesn’t have that younger feel.”
Price moved to Austin without a full-time job waiting for him when he arrived. But that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying all that Texas’ capital city has to offer: an energized arts and entertainment scene and an abundance of outdoor activities.
Statistically, Austin isn’t that different from Baton Rouge. The cities are similar in population, have a high ratio of young adults and are considered to be “recession-proof” in part because they are home to a flagship university and the seat of state government.
So why can’t Baton Rouge hold on to its young professionals? It’s not just losing them to Austin. It’s also losing them to Atlanta. And Dallas. And Houston. And Washington, D.C.
For years, Baton Rouge, and much of Louisiana, has battled brain drain, the large-scale departure of educated or professional people from one state, economic sector or field for another, usually for better pay or quality of life. And while no state wants to watch its best and brightest leave, it’s particularly bothersome in Louisiana, which, in some cases, paid for the young professional’s education through TOPS.
“Think about how many of your friends are on TOPS,” says Mike Odom, the senior vice president of marketing and operations. “The state paid to educate them in a Louisiana facility. And then Houston, Dallas or wherever just gobbles them up. If we don’t get them back at some point, then it’s just wasted money.”
Odom considers brain drain to be the most serious problem facing Baton Rouge, because the ability to retain talented young people lures more high-paying companies to the city. The resulting boost to the economy could have a trickle-down effect that reduces poverty and improves areas like public education.
“If it comes down to picking between us and another place, and they think they’re going to have to recruit their workforce from out of town, they may just say it’s too expensive,” he says.
For the past two months, BRAC has been circulating an unscientific survey to find out what people are looking for in the Capital Region. It has already received hundreds of responses from people who are ranking items such as nightlife, education, public transportation, shopping, food and arts.
Odom cautiously speculates that the primary reason young professionals are leaving Baton Rouge is the lack of high-paying entry-level jobs compared to this city’s metropolitan peers. For their part, businesses complain about not being able to find a mid-level workforce with between seven and 15 years’ experience, which Odom suggests could mean that graduates began leaving several years ago and have not returned.
“Baton Rouge has a very limited job market for new professional entrants in the workforce, unless you happen to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer,” says Slater McKay, president-elect of Forum 35, a group for young professionals. “Even then, it seems that our parents and the Baby Boomer generation in front of us are being very slow to release their steel grip on mid- and upper-management positions in the established businesses here.”
Baton Rouge, however, has fared reasonably well through the economic slowdown, and the city is consistently ranked as one of the strongest metropolitan areas in the country.
As recently as last month, Baton Rouge ranked as one of the top 21 performing areas during the first quarter of 2010, according to a Brookings Institute report that measures the effects of the recession; the rankings are based on factors such as changes in employment, gross metropolitan product and the housing price index.
According to a Portfolio.com study released earlier this month, Baton Rouge’s unemployment rate among people ages 25-64 is 4.6%, which is lower than Atlanta [5.5%] and Houston [4.7%] but higher than Austin [4.3%], Dallas [4.3%] and Washington, D.C. [3.7%]. But Baton Rouge has the lowest median household income of those cities at $47,300.
Economics aside, employment isn’t the issue for all young professionals. For some, the Capital Region has failed to capture their interest.
“It’s not where I wanted to be after I graduated,” says Emily Boimare, 25, who works for a local architecture firm. “I had never planned on staying in-state, especially in Baton Rouge. The city itself doesn’t have a lot to offer in general as opposed to New Orleans or Lafayette.”
Boimare is unimpressed by the city’s nightlife, she says, and is attracted to cities with more personality.
“I read somewhere that New Orleans and Baton Rouge have this rivalry,” she says, “but I don’t think that’s true. Baton Rouge may want to be New Orleans, but I don’t think New Orleans considers Baton Rouge to be a rival.”
And to some degree, that might be true. New Orleans is famous for lots of reasons, including the French Quarter; blues and jazz; events like Mardi Gras and the Jazz and Heritage Festival; numerous eclectic restaurants and nightspots; Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Audubon Zoo; and scenic thoroughfares such as Magazine Street and St. Charles Avenue.
And Baton Rouge?
“I think Baton Rouge struggles with its identity to some degree,” says Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District. “People talk about things that come out of Baton Rouge, and because we’re a capital city, people just associate that with the whole state.”
BRAC is working with groups in the nine-parish Capital Region to develop a new brand for the area, stretching from the Tunica Hills in West Feliciana Parish to the Mississippi River plantation homes in Ascension and Iberville parishes.
“It’s not so much that Baton Rouge has a bad reputation,” Odom says. “It’s that we have no reputation.”
Part of that problem is internal. Odom says graduates looking for things that Austin has to offer need to look no further than Baton Rouge. You want natural beauty? Check out the hiking trails in the Felicianas. You want charm and character? Check out the World’s Smallest Church in Iberville Parish; it’s 8 feet by 8 feet. You want food? Check out the numerous restaurants in the Capital Region serving everything from four-star fare to seafood po-boys.
But, Odom says, LSU and Southern University graduates might not know about these things because many of them don’t stray too far from campus.
“We do a great job of telling visitors what we have to offer,” he says, “but we have never really had a big push for our internal customer; that is, people who already live here. We’re going to go out there and build this reputation, that we’re more than just LSU. We’re not just Les Miles. And there’s more to this area than the North Gates of campus and Reggie’s.”