Baton Rouge is embroiled in a lot of controversies, but is it hurting economic development?
Despite turmoil seemingly around every corner of Baton Rouge, the dramas are registering on the radar of national site selectors.
In recent weeks, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced their controversial decisions regarding the fate of the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling.
Organizers of the St. George incorporation effort relaunched their petition drive to form their own city and independent school district.
Industry and community groups butted heads over how to restructure the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program.
The state legislature failed to come up with a solution to a looming $700 million budget shortfall.
And the community nearly came to blows with the head of the local park system over whether to relocate the Baton Rouge Zoo, which has since lost its national accreditation.
It would seem Baton Rouge is not a great place to be at the moment.
But does it look at as bleak to outsiders as it does to those at ground zero?
Actually, no, according to several national site selection consultants and experts, who say the parochial issues and controversies that seems so problematic at the local level barely register on the national scale.
More significantly, they say those issues don’t factor significantly into the decisions companies make about where to invest and expand.
“Virtually no impact,” says Ron Unger, executive vice president of Site Selection magazine. “I would daresay the typical site selection consultant would know little about any of those issues. Most CEOs would also be unaware of them.”
South Carolina-based site selection consultant Mark Sweeney shares Unger’s assessment, noting that even the recent Sterling decision is less of a blemish on the area than one might assume given the negative national media coverage.
“The shooting situation is not good,” Sweeney says. “But unfortunately it’s not unique to Baton Rouge. A lot of places in the United States have had shootings.”
Sweeney says companies looking to make major investments in a market forecast 10, 20 or even 30 years into the future so issues like tax structure, education and infrastructure matter more than local controversies.
One caveat, he believes, is the St. George effort.
“If they’re successful in getting an independent school district it would raise concerns about the future of public education in the parish,” he says. “It would be seen as instead of trying to solve the problem by moving forward, trying to solve the problem by moving backwards.”
The ITEP issue and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ ongoing lawsuit against oil and gas companies for their role in damaging the state’s wetlands also make some companies think twice about coming to Louisiana, according to former BRAC executive Iain Vasey, who now heads the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corp., which regularly competes with Louisiana for projects.
“Those issues come up in conversation,” Vasey says. “We hear it.”
Still, Vasey and others believe what tips the scale in the favor of one market over another is the stability and predictability of its tax structure, good education, adequate infrastructure. The more immediate, short-term controversies—even crime—don’t matter as much.
“The bottom line is there are problems everywhere,” Unger says. “If you lived in Chicago and read the newspaper every day you’d think the world was coming to an end. Yet, Chicago has been the number one destination for corporate facility growth in the U.S. for the past six years in a row.”