Stephanie Riegel: A look back at a busy year

Insider

As a writer, year-end retrospectives always strike me as a bit self-indulgent. Still, it’s hard not to look back at the local events that marked 2014—a year of growth, change and lots of interesting stories.

Coming off the boom that was 2013­—which kicked off with the announcement of the IBM complex downtown and ended with the unveiling of plans for the Water Campus research park—it seemed 2014 would inevitably be somewhat lackluster by comparison.

But the new year didn’t disappoint. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation promised more great things for the city, with its ambitious initiative to restore the Baton Rouge Lakes and its nascent efforts to create a Medical District in the area between Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard.

Downtown saw unprecedented growth, with the ongoing construction of several major residential projects and the announcement of two planned hotels. The district also got its first new retail store in decades and half a dozen new bars and restaurants. A full-service supermarket, meanwhile, is set to open in January.

Economic growth was hardly limited to the city’s historic center, however. Lenders were back in the business of financing projects and developers were all too willing to take advantage of the available capital. In the hotel, office and commercial sectors, new deals and projects were announced every week. The multifamily sector proved particularly active. During the course of the year more than 1,700 apartment units were under construction and plans for some 3,000 more were announced.

In the residential sector, both the volume of home sales and the average price increased, as did year-over-year sales tax collections. In retail, Perkins Rowe’s new owners continued their upgrades and improvements to the development. Rouzan and Willow Grove inked new deals with commercial tenants, and the long-awaited Juban Crossing in Livingston Parish finally opened for business.

2014 also brought change to several institutions in the Capital City, some of it much needed. The Planning Department got a new director, Frank Duke, who ushered in an era of collaboration and communication between the planning community and developers. Of equal importance, Duke began the laborious process of rewriting the city-parish zoning code to bring it in compliance with new form-based design guidelines. If approved next year by the Metro Council, the effects will be felt for years to come.

Voters approved the reorganization of the Department of Public Works, a significant overhaul that will break the unwieldy agency into six, separate departments and, it is hoped, increase efficiency and effectiveness.

The LSU Alumni Association also got a revamp. In the wake of a lawsuit and sex scandal that prompted the resignation of its longtime CEO Charlie Roberts, the association announced term limits for its board of directors and a host of new employee-related policies designed to increase its accountability.

The Roberts affair was one of the more bizarre stories of 2014. The ongoing saga of ousted Parish Attorney Mary Roper was another. What began as an attempt by the Metro Council to remove her from her position amidst questions about job performance, devolved into a series of lawsuits and, of late, criminal allegations that she hacked into the city-parish email system after her termination.

Another weird one for the books was the falling out between Mayor-President Kip Holden and Walter Monsour, his former CAO and close advisor. Monsour, who had been earning more than $350,000 a year as the CEO of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, somehow ended up on Holden’s bad side. When the RDA went looking to the city-parish for funding, the mayor not only said no but lambasted his one-time friend for feeding at the public trough.

Monsour resigned, saving the agency at least enough money to stay afloat for the time being. But two big questions remain, namely: Is the RDA sustainable long term, and what’s really behind the animus between Monsour and the Mayor?

Perhaps it was just fickleness on Holden’s part. He wasn’t the only elected official to have a change of heart in 2014. Both Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter flip-flopped on the issue of Common Core, the national education standards both had previously supported. For the local business community the issue was significant because business leaders have been pushing for the standards as a way to make the state more competitive.

Workforce readiness is a big issue with big business, and industry devoted considerable efforts in 2014 to bringing the state’s workforce up to speed in anticipation of an industrial construction boom. That issue will continue to dominate discussions in the year to come.

So, too, will the ongoing debate over the effort to incorporate a new city of St. George. Given all the growth and relative prosperity in the Capital Region in 2014, you have to wonder why 18,000 or so residents of the parish want to create their own city. But, then, it’s about the schools and in 2014 little—make that nothing— happened to address the problems at the heart of the St. George movement.

Perhaps 2015 will be the year for solutions to the area’s deep-seated education woes. Here’s to hoping. In the meantime, at least, Baton Rouge ends the year, as it began, in one piece.