You don’t have to look hard to find problems around here.
At the recent Center for Planning Excellence Smart Growth Summit, a bevy of experts reminded us of just how bad things really are in Louisiana:
• We have among the highest poverty rates in the nation.
• We have the worst health outcomes.
• We receive the most federal disaster assistance, per capita, of any state in the country because we are the most prone to natural disasters.
• And, our state is losing the battle against rising sea levels and coastal subsidence because, sorry climate deniers, the Earth is getting hotter.
That’s why it was particularly refreshing to celebrate some legitimate wins that were recently announced for the city and the state.
Some are more significant than others. Taken together, they give reason to hope that as bad as things are—and they are—good things also are happening throughout the area.
Perhaps the most significant was the Oct. 23 announcement that Pennington Biomedical Research Center has landed the top bariatric surgeon in the world, Dr. Phil Schauer, to head up a new bariatric surgery center to be operated by PBRC in partnership with Our Lady of the Lake.
In terms of numbers alone, the program—which will bring dozens from Shauer’s research team and their millions in federal grant money to Baton Rouge—will have an estimated economic impact of more than $100 million in its first four years. In terms of science and medicine, the program will make Pennington—which already is recognized for its expertise in diabetes, obesity and nutrition research—one of the foremost treatment centers for obesity in the world.
“Game changer” is a word used too often and too casually. In this instance, the descriptive is appropriate. The Pennington deal really does have the potential to move the needle.
Another significant win was the Nov. 13 announcement that the state, city, LSU and BREC have agreed on the broad outlines of a funding plan to restore and enhance the system of six lakes that run through City Park and LSU.
For years, the shallow lakes have been neglected and they are literally dying, being depleted of oxygen and giving rise to algae blooms.
The multiyear effort will cost at least $50 million and is the brainchild of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which funded a $1 million master plan for the project several years ago. While there was neither the collective will nor enough state money to help get the much-needed project off the ground then, there is both now.
Granted, the health of the lakes does not rise to the same level of concern as rising sea level or rising income disparity. But the system is one of Baton Rouge’s greatest natural assets, providing a beautiful recreational space for thousands of residents, students and visitors. It’s an important economic development tool and selling point for the community, and the fact the parties all came together to address the issue speaks to the potential to solve bigger, systemic problems.
A smaller but still noteworthy positive development was the unveiling of the Plank Road Mater Plan, coupled with the announced $15 million federal grant that will help fund the bus rapid transit system around which the plan is based.
The plan is the first big effort of the parish redevelopment authority, Build Baton Rouge, under the leadership of President and CEO Chris Tyson. Unlike other nice pieces of shelf art, this master plan has the potential to make a difference for a long underserved corridor for two reasons:
• First, it will create an express mass transit route that will connect Plank Road to downtown and LSU, where many north Baton Rouge residents work.
• Second, while the plan has been in development over the past year, Build Baton Rouge has been quietly assembling large tracts of land around 85 adjudicated lots near Plank Road that were given to it by the Metro Council in 2018. Significantly, the Capital Area Finance Authority is backing the effort with a $860,000 line of credit, signaling buy in from a key player in the community.
By owning and controlling sizable parcels, Build Baton Rouge will have the ability to better attract and incentivize private sector partners and developers to, say, build a shopping center or the long awaited grocery story. The master plan will help guide those efforts.
In some corners of the parish there is grumbling and hostility to investing in underserved communities like Plank Road or, even, to fixing up the lakes. It’s important to see the connection that exists among all these elements and to understand that the entire community benefits when one segment does.
One of the overarching themes of the recent Smart Growth Summit was the importance of planning from an equitable perspective for an uncertain future that will be affected by climate change. There is a lot of work to be done.
But strategic, collaborative investments and programs to enhance Pennington—which has the ability to directly improve the health outcomes and quality of life of our most-obese-in-the-nation population—or the lakes or Plank road is critical to our future.
It’s encouraging to see that we’re doing some things right. It’s important to harness that spirit of collaboration to address the many other challenges we face.