As someone who grew up somewhere other than here, it’s forever amazing to me how Baton Rouge—a natural resource rich capital city with the state’s flagship university and a high-potential health care sector—can’t get out of its own way long enough to even come close to capitalizing on its enormous possibilities.
No doubt, there are a Tiger Stadium full of reasons—real and imagined—for this, but, ultimately, we’re not all that we can be because we’ve made the very conscious choice not to be all that we can be.
Make no mistake, Baton Rouge is teeming with individuals chasing personal greatness. We’ve also got more than our fair share of entrepreneurs and small business owners working tirelessly to evolve and disrupt their companies in the quest for a better life for their families and employees. And, my goodness, few cities in America have more nonprofits running around trying to do good in their own little niche.
Yet—and it’s a big yet—when’s the last time these individuals, companies and nonprofits joined forces for anything?
The answer would be whenever there’s a natural disaster, like the August 2016 flood when the whole of East Baton Rouge Parish came together for the greater good of rescue, survival and rebuilding.
Despite the horrific tragedy, it was incredibly inspiring—and heartwarming—traveling to hard-hit north Baton Rouge and what soon may become St. George and seeing residents of every race, gender, orientation and economic status working hand-in-hand to empty waterlogged homes, turn an empty movie studio into temporary housing for thousands of instantly homeless neighbors and, in general, just be there for one another.
There was no Baton Rouge divide during those steamy August days and nights. For the better part of two months we were a unified community of one, hell-bent on lifting everyone—no matter who they were—to a better place.
This kumbaya moment, brought to us by crisis, as we all know, didn’t last. The flood waters receded, and we retreated back to our neighborhoods and single-entrance subdivisions of isolation and parochialism.
And that’s a shame. Because, bluntly put, doing what we’ve been doing means Baton Rouge will never realize its potential to become an economically thriving and diverse city with a quality of life capable of attracting and retaining the talent necessary to compete in a world powered by knowledge, research and innovation.
Our crisis isn’t one of life or death; it’s one of mediocrity.
I thought about this troubling reality as the St. George argument makes its way from the streets of Baton Rouge to the legislative halls of the State Capitol. The path from there seems clear: to voters in the proposed incorporation area in November and then through who knows how many courtrooms in the months and years ahead. The only certainty is vitriol.
Those wanting to blame this financial freedom movement solely on Baton Rouge’s very real racial and economic divides are missing the larger picture.
Go ahead, scream racial disharmony is driving the desire to create an independent suburban city, but that same discord—though not drawing the same outrage—is also fueling the demand from north Baton Rouge residents to create a self-serving city government.
These actions are merely the effect. The cause is a complete and utter lack of trust—in both our local government and its leaders as well as in ourselves.
Think about it. Both sides of the divide are fighting for a better life. Both want better education opportunities for their children. Both want their legitimate concerns not just heard, but actually addressed.
Yet the absence of trust—and an increasingly polarized political world—makes the hope of finding any islands of compromise or common ground about as likely as LSU beating Nick Saban’s Alabama football team.
Seriously, the motives of distrust behind St. George and those calls for a city council aren’t much different from those that led to the independent taxing authorities of BREC, the library system, CATS and the Council on Aging.
We simply don’t have an iota of collective trust in the mayor and Metro Council—regardless of who fills those seats—to make smart decisions. And, yes, let’s not be naïve, there’s also massive distrust in those who look different, think different politically or belong to a different economic class.
Our response is the creation of special interest solutions that are not only remarkably inefficient but also cost taxpayers way more money.
Trust isn’t our only problem. Largely unnoticed is how risk-adverse Baton Rouge is as a community.
I’m not smart enough to know exactly why. Is it due to Baton Rouge being home to an inordinate number of public-sector workers, who tend not to be the biggest risk-takers? Might it have something to do with all the plant workers whose job is to actually mitigate risk?
Is it because a significant portion of our population—and certainly those who have the money, power and clout to make things happen—are quite comfortable with life in Baton Rouge? They live in fabulous homes in equally fabulous gated or single-entrance subdivisions in tony pockets of Baton Rouge and, frankly, whatever quality of life desires they crave is just a private or first-class plane ride away. My point: What exactly is their motivation to demand a different, more evolved Baton Rouge?
This much I do know: Baton Rouge will never become that much-hyped next great American city—which we actually could sniff if we ever got serious—until we collectively get sick of being so average.
Most of the people I meet here love to regale me with tales of their high school feats of athletic accomplishment. I promise you all of those district, city and state titles were won by teams where the players not only trusted their coaches but also set aside personal differences with their fellow players, focusing instead on the greater good of working together to win games.
Using coach speak, Baton Rouge is a “me town,” not a “we town.” Drop the “me” and adopt the “we” and this city can compete. But that can’t—and won’t—happen until we trust.
Until then, here’s a question: Other than LSU football and the New Orleans Saints, name something we, as a people, take great collective pride in regarding our community? The answers—or the absence of them—might shed some light as to the state in which Baton Rouge finds itself.