The rise of a city

City of Central, as it’s officially known, isn’t much of a city, and it’s not really in the center of anything. It is, however, a thriving rural bedroom community spread over 66 square miles and home to nearly 27,000 people, according to the 2010 census.

Movements to incorporate Central date back at least to the 1970s. Residents in this northeastern swath of East Baton Rouge Parish often felt slighted by parishwide entities, including the Horizon Plan, the Department of Public Works, BREC and, especially, the school system.

In 2001, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System was trying to develop attendance zones that would satisfy the plaintiffs in a 45-year-old desegregation case. Some parents in the mostly white Central schools felt their children were being shuffled around like chess pieces to meet racial quotas. Reportedly, when an EBR school board member referred to Central as the school system’s “last white stronghold” at a public meeting, many in the audience applauded, although other parents said they were concerned about preserving neighborhood schools, not race.

A constitutional amendment to allow Central to have its own school district died in the Legislature that same year. Mayor Kip Holden, then a state representative, led the opposition.

Though the state constitution doesn’t require it, lawmakers basically said Central residents couldn’t have their own school district unless they incorporated. Community leaders such as Russell Starns and then-state Rep. Mack “Bodi” White took that suggestion as a challenge.

Organizers successfully sued to throw out a provision of the city-parish charter that limited East Baton Rouge to three cities (Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary). That meant they only needed approval of Central-area residents, and not the entire parish, to break away. In 2005, that approval was granted.

And suddenly, Central was the dog that caught the car. East Baton Rouge city-parish government handled services from 2005 until 2008, when Central became the only municipality in the state to almost fully privatize its services by hiring CH2M Hill of Denver to a three-year contract to handle everything but police and fire protection.

That decision became controversial when CH2M Hill took out an ad in The Advocate during the 2010 mayoral election headlined “We Are Central.” Central City News publisher Woody Jenkins filed a public records request seeking documents related to the ad’s publication, which the firm insisted it did not have to provide as a private company.

The newspaper’s suit against the firm still is pending, although CH2M Hill is no longer running the city. A nonprofit called Building Technology and Safety was chosen to fill that role in 2011.

Along with Zachary, the parish’s other majority-white city, Central tends to be staunchly conservative. Mayor Kip Holden blamed the 2009 defeat of a $901 million bond issue in part on the “north-south factor,” with Central and Zachary in the north voting heavily against the measure. When Baton Rouge and Baker approved a property tax to fund CATS this year, Zachary voted overwhelmingly against it. Transit organizers didn’t even bother asking Central to participate in the bus system.

And the feeling that Central gets short shrift hasn’t gone away. White and other city leaders in 2008 threatened to pull Central out of the BREC taxing district and form a new park system. Metro Councilman Scott Wilson of Central pushed an unsuccessful ballot measure in 2011 that would have added representatives of Central, Baker and Zachary to the boards for BREC and the library system, which currently are composed of at-large members who in theory are supposed to represent the entire parish.

Central leaders are confident residents will be attracted by their new, high-ranking school system, but a city can’t support itself on residential property taxes alone.

“If we don’t hurry and get some retail here and generate some sales tax dollars,” Wade Giles, president of the Central Economic Development Foundation, told Business Report in 2010, “we’re going to really be hurting.”

When Mac Watts was appointed the first mayor by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, one of his first moves was hiring a consultant to help design a master plan for growth. The plan, ratified with little controversy, aims to focus development on a few key areas, hopefully allowing the rest of the community to reap the economic benefits while maintaining the rural character Central’s longtime residents enjoy.

Or as Watts put it to Business Report in 2007: “To stay the same, you have to change.”

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