Helping businesses recover from blows dealt by the pandemic and prioritizing north Baton Rouge for investment are among this year’s major priorities for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
BRAC CEO Adam Knapp outlined the agency’s priorities for the year during a lunchtime presentation today to the Baton Rouge Press Club. The agency’s prior five-year plan ended in 2020 “in the midst of the pandemic,” and Knapp says the organization has been unable to write its next long-term strategy, though it plans to start sometime this year.
“We’re in between one five-year strategy and the need to write another,” Knapp says. “This year is an opportunity for something different. … We have to be asking ourselves, ‘How can we come together?’ Not just after the pandemic, but after a complicated election. Let 2021 be a start for a new Baton Rouge metro.”
Thus far, the metro has recreated 35,000 jobs since the pandemic dealt its strongest blow in the spring, Knapp says, although the area is still down some 15,000 to 20,000 jobs. While unemployment claims have dropped, the numbers still point to a challenged economy as 4,000 more people applied for unemployment over the holidays.
“The effect of the pandemic and closures of parts of the economy continue to linger,” Knapp says. “Small business revenue in East Baton Rouge Parish is down 22% from before the pandemic. Livingston Parish is down 32%. Ascension is doing better—it’s just down 3%—but it’s still down.”
The organization is also prioritizing north Baton Rouge and diversity and inclusion efforts this year. Specifically, BRAC is looking at ways to spur more reinvestment in north Baton Rouge, either through new initiatives or private reinvestment. Knapp says BRAC is exploring how economic development agencies across the country have used a business service model to help disadvantaged businesses grow. BRAC is also hiring a full-time employee to work on diversity and inclusion initiatives.
In addition to its other priorities, BRAC intends to champion the need for a new Mississippi River bridge. Knapp says the organization backs the state Legislature raising the gas tax—as long as certain projects receive funding from the increase.