If Baton Rouge wants to evolve and grow then the business community must lead the way. That was the key takeaway of the civic and business leaders who traveled to Cincinnati for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s Canvas Benchmarking Workshop.
It was a point made clear throughout a three-day visit to a city that’s seen its business community play a vital role over the past 25 years in revitalizing Cincinnati while getting diverse nonprofit agencies and local governments to buy into a vision for the future.
Coming from a city and a state where splintered groups and governments typically work in silos and at cross purposes competing for limited resources, the story of Cincinnati—at least as told by one speaker after another—has been instructive for the Baton Rouge group. That story is that working together with the business community in the lead has proven effective in leveraging investments to solve blight, poor health outcomes, economic and racial disparity, and workforce training problems.
“The business community and nonprofits all move on the same page and that is why they have the outcomes and the results,” says Mayor Sharon Weston Broome. “I also like the fact that the business community takes a lot of leadership. Government takes a role but they don’t play the entire role.”
Broome and others on the trip also say they’ve been struck by the business community’s recognition that investing in the city’s low-income population is not only a moral imperative but an economic development strategy.
“Their corporate elite has an enlightened vision as to their role in making this a better city,” says Edgardo Tenreiro, CEO of Baton Rouge General Medical Center. “It’s not government solving the problem but the private sector stepping in and solving issues that government can’t solve.”
So how can Baton Rouge emulate that model, particularly with a business community that doesn’t have nine Fortune 500 corporations driving the discussion like Cincinnati?
Answering that question is the challenge, and it is noteworthy that few actual business owners or executives were on the trip. Many of the attendees, by contrast, are with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit agencies, groups that already are striving to address Baton Rouge’s challenges through a new lens.
“Who will drive us forward, who will lead this strategy,” asked Renee Chatelain, executive director of the Arts Council of Baton Rouge.
No one had an immediate answer.
“Sometimes these trips are great,” Tenreiro says. “But they’re also a little bit depressing because you realize we’re so far behind.”