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‘We don’t stack up’: Baton Rouge needs to invest in these three areas, Jim Bernhard says

Baton Rouge has three ingredients that should make it a great American city, according to Jim Bernhard: A flagship university, a state capital with its corresponding government workforce and a major industrial sector.

But the Capital City continually lags behind peer Southern cities in areas like university enrollment, population growth and infrastructure, the Bernhard Capital Partners founder and partner said during his address to this morning’s Leadership Power Breakfast, an event presented by Business Report.

Until local leaders invest in areas like schools, traffic improvements and crime fighting measures, the region will continue to fall short of places like Austin and Nashville, Bernhard said.

“The sad truth is that we don’t stack up. That’s a fact,” he said. “So where are the missing links, and how do we do better?”

Bernhard, who founded the Fortune 500 company The Shaw Group, said it was a difficult decision to stay in Baton Rouge five years ago, after CB&I acquired the company for $3 billion. And through Bernhard stayed in the area to grow his private equity firm, he said the region needs to invest in the three areas. The first is universities, especially at the flagship. LSU’s fiscal health is currently in limbo as the state approaches a $1 billion fiscal cliff, and Bernhard noted that Alabama University has far outpaced LSU in enrollment in recent years.  

“If you’re an LSU fan like I am, that should get your attention,” he said. “We must do better and we can’t just wait for state legislative funding.”

Bernhard encouraged the business executives and others attending the breakfast to push for investment in higher education, as well as in areas like infrastructure, where Louisiana is “woefully behind.” He called for the business community to rally around an increase in the gasoline tax to fund infrastructure projects, noting the state is at risk of not being able to meet a federal match if Congress passes a major infrastructure bill this year.

He also called on Baton Rouge-area leaders to rally around K-12 education and crime prevention—the third area—on the heels of the deadliest year in the parish’s history. In the South, Louisiana only outranks Mississippi in K-12 education outcomes, noted Bernhard, who said that explains why Louisiana only outranks Mississippi in the number of Fortune 1000 companies.

“We have all the building blocks,” Bernhard said. “We have the right pieces. We truly do have the opportunity to be a great city. But we must do more to invest in the areas I outlined today.”

—Sam Karlin

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