Bridging the divide – Why is East Baton Rouge such a divided parish and what can be done to fix it?

Why is East Baton Rouge such a divided parish? In part, it’s because East Baton Rouge is part of Louisiana, a state that steadfastly embraces 1) the nation’s highest property tax homestead exemption and 2) the populist notion that almost all tax revenue should flow through the State Capitol so that the governor and a beholden Legislature can redistribute public wealth to the masses.

Not only are these ridiculously flawed—and contradictory—philosophies, but they also leave parish and city governments, desperate for revenue, little choice but to wield the sword of parochialism in the fight over sales tax dollars.

That’s one reason why local elected officials tend not to play nice with one another, but what about the rest of us who call East Baton Rouge home? Is a typical person from Baton Rouge, or Central, or Zachary, or Baker or from any of the unincorporated hamlets in this parish as myopic as the elected officials who represent them?

This may come as a shock to many, but the answer is no.

A CityStats study, released this week by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, emphatically shows that a majority of us in East Baton Rouge—regardless of our ZIP code—share many of the same wants and desires for the future of the parish. Without question, there’s lots of quibbling about the details. Yet it’s also clear that when it comes to the attributes that make a community a desirable place to live, what’s important to someone living in Southdowns is, in almost every case, equally important to someone living in Magnolia Square—including a vibrant downtown.

If that stuns you, prepare to be blown away: 56% of us would not be too upset if we were to move away from East Baton Rouge. On the flip side, 62% of residents feel a sense of pride when they tell fellow Louisianans they are from East Baton Rouge. What does that mean? My guess: People aren’t thrilled with Louisiana, but they believe East Baton Rouge is a better place to live than most other parishes in the state.

Understanding what makes a community desirable and the importance of community attachment was the goal of a recent Gallup Poll survey of 26 American cities. The survey found the top three attributes of a desirable community are: social offerings (entertainment venues, recreation facilities, places to gather), openness (tolerance of diversity) and aesthetics (physical beauty and green spaces). There was also a direct correlation between the presence of those three attributes and the level of community attachment by its residents.

The BRAF study, conducted by LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, asked questions similar to the Gallup Poll survey with the hope of determining how residents here view the social offerings, aesthetics and openness of East Baton Rouge, as well as their level of attachment to calling this place home.

The thing about numbers—as economists and politicians prove every day—is one can manipulate them to prove pretty much anything he or she desires. However, there’s no mistaking that a majority of people in East Baton Rouge believe this parish must embrace change.

A clear majority of parish residents support a significant downtown riverfront attraction. People will pay higher taxes for roads, bridge repairs, drainage and—surprisingly—mass transportation, but not for prisons and downtown parking garages. We also want walking trails, jogging paths and better street connectivity—key pieces of the FuturEBR plan.

So if we agree on so much, why do three-quarters of us believe we’re a parish divided?

Look no further than the elected officials in every corner of this parish—be it the mayor-president, the mayor of a city or a member of a parish or city council. These parochialists are either enthralled by the vocal minority among us, or they’re simply hell-bent on creating animosity and division to further their own self-serving agendas. You make the call.

What’s clear is we’re a parish in desperate need of a unifying and visionary leader who can harness the strong desire for change in this parish. We need elected officials willing to build consensus around the concepts of self-sacrifice, the greater good and compromise.

We agree on so much else, can’t we agree on this?

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