Political attention is turning toward underdeveloped north Baton Rouge, but challenges abound for sustainable economic development in distressed areas
(Aspiring entrepreneur Dezmion Barrow has “decided to plant my stake” in north Baton Rouge despite the area’s myriad challenges. Photography by Don Kadair)
Dezmion Barrow grew up with his grandmother in Holiday Acres, a subdivision of low-slung, primarily Section 8 rental houses in Scotlandville. No one in his family went to college, and in high school he wasn’t interested in higher education.
A trip with a friend to orientation at Southeastern Louisiana University—including a look at all the pretty girls on campus and the thrice-daily buffets in the dining hall—changed his mind. He majored in finance, hoping to transcend his own financial circumstances. Instead, he got a crash course in student loan debt, and after a couple years at SLU and a short stint at Southern University, he dropped out. Now 26 years old, he works night jobs at Sam’s Club and a group home to finance his lawn care and party rental businesses.
“This is what an average individual would see,” Barrow says while driving south on Scotland Avenue on a recent grey, drizzly morning in Scotlandville. “Blighted properties over there. You’ve got a rundown car wash right here. … Another closed-down business. See the conditions of those houses over there? Waking up in something like that does something to your psyche.”
Barrow knows firsthand that living in uninspiring circumstances leads to more than a negative impression of your own neighborhood. It creates “a hopeless mentality” about what’s possible in your own life, he says.
But Barrow isn’t hopeless. As he nears the intersection of Scotland and the ironically named Scenic Highway, he points out public spaces that could be made more inviting with better landscaping and several buildings that would have serious commercial potential if renovated. “You’ve got Southern University coming up the street,” he says. “You’ve got people coming [through here] from Zachary and Baker if they don’t get on the interstate. This is a main entry point. Everybody’s going to see it.”
A few nearby businesses seem to be thriving, and a Baton Rouge Police Department substation is barely 500 feet away. So why is this intersection underdeveloped?
Barrow is a part of a growing and increasingly noisy contingent of north Baton Rouge residents asking such questions about their communities. While Barrow acknowledges that many of his neighbors have trouble articulating precisely what’s wrong or what should change, he says that doesn’t invalidate their mounting frustration with the lack of economic development in their communities.
“When they come to town hall meetings or council meetings, it comes off as anger,” Barrow says. “But it’s really them trying to say passionately that we are suffocating.”
Downtown Baton Rouge, through public and private investment, has been transformed from a ghost town to one of the region’s most inviting places to live, work and play in little more than a decade. In more recent years, Mid City has also seen stirrings of a renaissance.
North Baton Rouge, loosely defined as everything inside the city limits north of Florida Boulevard, hasn’t yet received the same kind of targeted attention from city-parish leaders, but that may be starting to change. It has a number of assets, but no one has yet figured out how to leverage those assets to boost investment and give engaged, industrious young people like Barrow more reasons to stick around.
“I’ve decided to plant my stake here,” says Barrow, who has a daughter due in April. “But it’s hard to convince my peers.”
MONEY FOLLOWS MONEY
Baton Rouge is not unusual in having wide income disparity along geographic lines. While not isolated to north Baton Rouge, much of the city’s concentrated poverty is found north of Florida Boulevard.
Attempting to explain the economic trends, policy decisions and social issues that led to the conditions found in cities across America is beyond the scope of this article. (For the curious, an Internet search for the term “redlining” is an interesting starting point.) But what is relevant is the fact that an area with poor economic prospects often gets caught in a self-reinforcing cycle that’s hard to reverse. When blight and crime are prevalent, people with means tend to move. Those left behind are less able to improve their own circumstances and have less spending power to attract businesses and quality housing.
“You have a lot of things that are not good for economic development clustering in that area,” says Leslie Grover, an assistant professor of public administration at Southern University who researches the socioeconomics of distressed areas.
The cycle also works in the opposite direction. Money follows money, and in Baton Rouge, a lot of money has been heading south for quite some time now.
Much of the population and income growth in the Baton Rouge area has been in the south and southeast for at least the past three decades, says Joey Canella, a senior adviser with SVN | Graham, Langlois & Legendre Commercial Real Estate Advisors. Most retailers—beyond dollar stores, pawn shops, payday lenders and the like—hope to serve an affluent customer base, and offices tend to be built in locations convenient for affluent residents.
Lower real estate prices may mean good buys can be had in north Baton Rouge, Canella says, and incentives can entice potential developers to look a little harder at an area they would otherwise immediately dismiss. But investors still need to know that the market can support the project once it’s built, and in much of north Baton Rouge the numbers just aren’t adding up at the moment.
Much of the south Baton Rouge elite sees north Baton Rouge as some sort of crime-ridden lost cause. Most north Baton Rouge residents and business owners admit there are pockets of violence in neighborhoods north of Florida Boulevard, but they say the area’s negatives tend to be exaggerated by outsiders while the potential is underappreciated.
Richard Preis is the developer of Howell Place on Harding Boulevard near the airport, which he says represents about $150 million worth of investment and more than 535 jobs. While there may be trouble spots between Airline Highway and downtown, he says, crime basically is a nonissue north of Airline where Howell Place is located.
When Preis started developing the 207-acre site in the early 2000s, he says at least some local and regional banks didn’t understand the potential of the north side of the parish. The implication is that many lenders and investors are so wary of north Baton Rouge that they don’t fully evaluate the merits of specific projects.
“The business is there,” says Preis, who has been successful in developing four hotels, a medical center, a YMCA, apartments and several fast food restaurants at Howell Place thus far. “People have to take their blinders off.”
Rinaldi Jacobs is CEO of Full Circle Development, which does real estate development and demolition projects and is working on a few projects on the north side of the city, including the redevelopment of the former Specialty Metals warehouse on Tecumseh Street and a possible a supermarket near Southern University.
It has taken Jacobs two years to track down the warehouse owner and perform the necessary environmental tests on the site, but he now has a purchase agreement in place and is ready to move forward. As for the supermarket, Jacobs is in talks with the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority about a possible site. The RDA’s legal counsel is working to clear title, he says, and he hopes to have a cooperative endeavor agreement in place with the RDA in the next few months.
Jacobs is among those who feel north Baton Rouge is unfairly and illogically painted with a broad brush of being crime-ridden. He sees the area—because it lacks so much—as being ripe with opportunity for development of grocery stores, restaurants, coffee bars and all the other amenities of modern life. So why aren’t more people trying to seize those opportunities?
“Some of us are,” Jacobs says. “Who wants to be the pioneer?”
While Jacobs says it’s nice that some politicians are starting to pay more attention to north Baton Rouge, he believes developers and investors will ultimately make the most important and impactful decisions on economic development in the area.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Grover describes the chicken/egg dilemma that north Baton Rouge faces: Crime (and the perception of crime) discourages investment. But more investment—which would spur job creation and put blighted properties into commerce—would do much toward alleviating crime.
So how to break the cycle? Grover is a member of a north Baton Rouge task force that is asking the Metro Council for $100,000 to compile research about the area’s assets and needs, survey residents and come up with recommendations that could lead to self-sustaining economic development.
“They’re going to be able to help our leaders come up with public policy,” Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said when announcing the group’s formation during a recent community meeting at Howell Place.
The lack of a hospital in north Baton Rouge is a crucial and headline-grabbing issue. But the task force hopes to go beyond the question of emergency care to reach a better understanding of the area’s general health care needs. One of the first steps would be reviewing the various master plans that have been created over the years and figuring out which, if any, still have merit. While a number of groups have studied north Baton Rouge, there hasn’t been an organized, concerted effort, Grover says.
East Baton Rouge Parish Planning Director Frank Duke has called for more attention on north Baton Rouge. But there are no easy answers, he cautions. “What would it take to entice businesses to look at that area?” he wonders. “This is a nation where the private sector largely determines where investment will happen. … You can plan for oil wells, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to strike oil.”
Louisiana’s Enterprise Zone program was meant to encourage investment in low-income areas. But during the 1990s the state Legislature changed the rules so that a company doesn’t have to be located within a designated Enterprise Zone to qualify for the benefits so long as it hires people with certain traits, such as being on public assistance. Consequently, far more businesses in less-needy areas have benefited from the program than those in places such as north Baton Rouge.
Changes approved during the recent special session meant to return the program to some semblance of its original mission give new companies locating in an Enterprise Zone more valuable tax credits per hire than those that don’t. But the revamped program still doesn’t benefit the kinds of businesses that many north Baton Rouge residents are calling for, such as restaurants and retail stores. That’s because such businesses typically don’t “generate new economic activity in the state,” but instead “shuffle jobs around from one establishment to another,” says Louisiana Economic Development Assistant Secretary Mandi Mitchell.
The East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority works to return blighted properties to commerce in hopes of spurring further private sector development in distressed areas. The RDA commissioned five community improvement plans for different sectors of north Baton Rouge, but the agency lacks funding and staff for implementation.
When the RDA last received a $60 million federal New Markets Tax Credit allocation in 2010, three projects on the north side of the parish benefited: a Honeywell plant expansion and two YMCAs. Other beneficiaries included the Emerge Center for Communication, Behavior and Development at the LSU Innovation Park and the Hampton Inn & Suites downtown. All of the projects are meeting the federal government’s requirements for the NMTC program, RDA Interim President and CEO Gwen Hamilton says.
It’s easy to imagine projects that could have used those same tax credits and delivered a bigger economic impact. But a community development entity like the RDA can’t just throw a handful of credits at an area to create a project. It needs a private-sector partner with a viable deal, and it must deploy the credits within five years or risk losing them.
Work on the RDA’s signature project, the Ardendale mixed-use development just north of Florida Boulevard between Ardenwood Drive and Lobdell Avenue, is underway. But without a permanent local funding stream, the RDA’s future is in doubt. “What north Baton Rouge needs is a fully functioning redevelopment authority that brings all of the financing and infrastructure pieces together,” Hamilton says.
ASSETS TO BUILD UPON
The state offers several programs, such as training and loan guarantees, that can benefit disadvantaged entrepreneurs, Mitchell says. LED has also helped attract several industrial expansions and relocations to north Baton Rouge, including at ExxonMobil, Honeywell, Genesis Energy, Coca-Cola and others. “We are doing what we can to focus our efforts, not just statewide, but in underserved communities,” she says.
The large industrial presence in north Baton Rouge certainly has its downsides. People with money usually don’t want to live next to a factory, and ExxonMobil (as just one example) has been sued more than once by groups alleging excessive emissions jeopardize the health of its neighbors.
But industry also provides an economic base. ExxonMobil alone provides jobs for up to 6,000 employees and contractors at its Baton Rouge facilities, says refinery manager Mark Northcutt. “The reality is that there are challenges here in the north Baton Rouge area,” he says. “We recognize those challenges, and we’re trying to do our part to support the community.”
One of those efforts is the North Baton Rouge Industrial Training Initiative, whereby Baton Rouge Community College helps ExxonMobil meet its workforce needs while providing good jobs to local residents. Almost 100 students have graduated from the program’s two phases, and a third is planned for this year. Along with the technical skills, the program helps students develop the proper work ethic and soft skills for the plant environment, and works to ensure they’ll be able to pass screenings and background checks.
“They’ve not necessarily had the opportunity to work in a structured work environment,” says Charlie Freeburgh, senior vice president for workforce development at BRCC. “Some of them have been unemployed or underemployed for many years.”
The training initiative has been deemed a success by both sides, and while ExxonMobil has been the primary funder and beneficiary so far, the program could be expanded if additional companies want to participate. BRCC is in the process of making its North Acadian Thruway campus, the former site of Capital Area Technical College, into its workforce training hub, Freeburgh notes.
Another obvious asset for north Baton Rouge is the airport. The Aviation Business Park at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport offers affordable leases and incentives and hosts Baton Rouge Coca-Cola Bottling Co., All Star Chevrolet and Indie Stages (which serves the film industry), among several others.
Perhaps the most important potential anchor and community actor in north Baton Rouge is Southern University. As likely the most widely beloved institution in a community that doesn’t trust many, it has the potential to bring various efforts and groups together, although critics say it hasn’t done enough to engage the people who live nearby.
The university does support economic development, says Ray Belton, the Southern University System’s president and Baton Rouge campus chancellor, mentioning the business college’s Louisiana Small Business Development Center. But he says Southern also could be a “convener” that brings stakeholders together—say a lender and developer—to bring about “smart development.”
“I do think that there’s an opportunity [for Southern] to do more,” he says.
POLITICS IN PLAY
It’s a local election year in East Baton Rouge Parish. Along with a new mayor to be selected this fall due to Mayor Kip Holden being term limited, all seats on the Metro Council are up for grabs. Whether that’s a good thing for north Baton Rouge (because politicians have extra incentive to pay attention to the area’s problems) or a bad thing (because politicians are quick to pay lip service to many problems as they seek votes) remains to be seen.
At least two recent calls have been made for economic development zones in north Baton Rouge. Former state representative Regina Barrow, who was elected to the state Senate last fall, sponsored creation of the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District during last year’s session. It replaces the obscure Greenwell Springs-Airline Economic Development District and calls for a 13-member commission.
The legislation says the district is “created for the purpose of developing the area” and will “provide for substantial economic activity and employment opportunities” but does not mention specific goals or funding. The district’s commissioners haven’t yet been publicly appointed. Barrow did not respond to a request for comment. However, she has filed a new bill for the current regular session that tweaks the district’s boundaries and governance, but it still does not include a funding source.
Meanwhile, Metro Councilman and mayoral candidate John Delgado has floated a proposal for giving developers property tax breaks in north Baton Rouge. Delgado apparently did not consult with Barrow or the council members who represent the area.
Most sources interviewed for this story agreed that north Baton Rouge should have its own version of the Downtown Development District or the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance. State Rep. Ted James—who also may run for Baton Rouge mayor—intends to file legislation this year calling for such a district, which likely would include some sort of taxing authority similar to that of the DDD.
James joined Barrow’s bill last year as a co-sponsor, and says her legislation could be seen as a starting point for his efforts. He wants to talk it over with his colleagues, but says a district focused on certain areas rather than one that encompasses all of north Baton Rouge might be more effective. (James’ bill had not yet been filed as of the writing of this story.)
Targeting particular areas that are ripe for development might be one part of the process of revitalizing north Baton Rouge. Defining goals is another.
Providing job opportunities for north Baton Rouge residents is one possible economic development goal, says Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp, while revitalizing blighted corridors in the area is a related but separate goal. The priorities should guide the policy proposals.
While BRAC includes north Baton Rouge in its effort to grow the economic pie for the entire Capital Region—by certifying sites for industrial prospects, for example—recruiting local services like restaurants and grocery stores is not part of its mission. However, the chamber can help provide research and serve as a “strategic advisor” to north Baton Rouge community leaders behind the scenes.
“We want to be part of that conversation,” Knapp says. Incentives can be an aspect of those conversations, he says, but they’re never more important than market fundamentals.
Danny Harper, an insurance salesman, franchise restauranteur and entrepreneur in north Baton Rouge, is currently developing a small commercial strip at Hooper and Joor roads. “I think [north Baton Rouge] is a great place to put businesses,” Harper says. “It’s virgin territory.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to confront, including blight and insufficient capital. But Harper is doubtful that politicians or outsiders are going to solve north Baton Rouge’s problems.
“Nothing over here is connected,” he says. “We’ve got to get started helping in our own community. That’s how you get help.”
He likes the idea of a north Baton Rouge version of the DDD. But he says a development district won’t do much good if the businesses, churches and institutions don’t support each other and the locals don’t spend their money close to home.
“I think our solutions are in our own community,” he says. “You’ve got to buy into the vision.”