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A look at Mid City’s emergence as a cultural hub in Baton Rouge

After more than 30 years of incremental improvements, Mid City is finally emerging as a cultural hub in Baton Rouge, as Business Report details in its new cover package.

Tom Sawyer has seen the transformation first hand. Back in 1984, Sawyer was the young CEO of Baton Rouge General. He had just overseen a $40 million renovation to his campus in Mid City—though it wasn’t called Mid City then—in an effort to keep up with Our Lady of the Lake, which a few years earlier had opened up a new hospital on Essen Lane that included private rooms, an innovation at the time.

But the neighborhoods surrounding the hospitals were deteriorating. Blight and crime were proliferating. An oil bust left a state recession in its wake. A drug epidemic was taking its toll. A busing effort to integrate the long-segregated school system spurred widespread white flight, which, mixed with classic suburbanization trends, caused a powerful flow of people and capital to the suburbs—and out of places like Mid City.

He had some staffers run the numbers: In seven to ten years, the hospital would approach a point where profitability would be in serious doubt.

Sawyer brought in some businesspeople, planners and community leaders to figure out what to do. They in turn branched out, traveling to places like St. Louis, Louisville and Memphis to see how those cities managed to retain the integrity of their inner core.

In Memphis, Sawyer explained his dilemma to officials with the Central City Development Corporation. “Well, we spent $40 million, and we thought it’d spur some growth,” he said of the hospital makeover.

“That’s the way you CEOs always think—you spend $40 million,” one official replied. “You’d be better off if you had four hundred $10,000 projects.”

Boo Thomas, whose planning prowess has influenced a vast amount of present-day Baton Rouge, had just graduated from LSU’s landscape architecture school and was working for the architecture firm Chenevert Soderberg to help with Baton Rouge’s first land use and transportation plan, the Horizon Plan. Sawyer liked what he saw. Thomas became the first director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, a project the Baton Rouge General would underwrite to the tune of $400,000 a year.

Thirty years later and Sawyer is sipping a coffee at French Truck Coffee, a hip, bright yellow, New Orleans-based establishment on Government Street that opened last summer. The owner Geoffrey Meeker picked the location for a simple reason—he loves it. “It’s bustling with activity.”

Over the past 30 years, Mid City has experienced a renaissance, with the Government Street corridor barreling with a full head of steam toward the type of destination street that populates places like Austin, Memphis and New Orleans.

As this effort moves into the next 30-year cycle, Mid City is well-positioned to succeed in this quest. There are, however, a number of important caveats: Can the vision for Mid City be fulfilled while retaining the charm of the neighborhoods? While avoiding gentrification? While including the northern half of its geographical boundary?

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