There’s a lot of interest lately in redeveloping north Baton Rouge.
Earlier this year, State Rep. Regina Barrow, who represents north Baton Rouge, succeeded in convincing the Legislature to create a Baton Rouge North Economic Development District. Though the district hasn’t actually done much yet, the idea is to create an entity that, like the Downtown Development District, will advocate for the area and help foster growth.
More recently, Metro Council members Chauna Banks-Daniel, who also represents north Baton Rouge, and John Delgado, who doesn’t but knows a rolling bandwagon when he sees one, have been talking about creating a special taxing district for the area.
Delgado has actually proposed a North Baton Rouge Economic Development District, which would give business owners who develop within the boundaries of the district a break on their property taxes.
Though Banks-Daniel initially lambasted Delgado as “the great white hope” for trying to grandstand and pander, she has since toned down the racist rhetoric and the two are now collaborating on the district. The measure will come before the Metro Council for a vote at their first meeting of the new year.
For an area that for so long attracted so little attention, it’s refreshing to see such an interest in bringing economic development and prosperity to the blighted neighborhoods and abandoned storefronts.
But will it work?
Developer Richard Preis thinks it can.
He has already brought economic development to north Baton Rouge, and he has a unique perspective on the pitfalls, the problems and the potential.
Preis began developing Howell Place in the early 2000s, a mixed-use development at Harding Boulevard and Interstate 110 across from the Baton Rouge Metro Airport. When he first embarked on what many dismissed as a quixotic project more than 15 years ago, his 205-acre tract was nothing but grass, and Harding Boulevard wasn’t much more than a country road.
Today, all but 80 acres of the property is developed and includes three hotels—a Hilton Garden Inn, Marriott Springhill Suites and Microtel Inn, a medical facility, a YMCA, apartments and several fast food restaurants.
Another 50 acres is currently under contract, and Preis hopes to soon announce a deal with a national buyer.
However, as Preis will be the first to tell you, developing Howell Place was a lot more challenging than he would have ever imagined, and it took much longer than originally planned.
There were several problems. Financing was a big one. Most local lenders were wary of north Baton Rouge and didn’t believe the if-you-build-it-they-will-come argument. Preis felt certain that given his property’s proximity to Exxon, the airport and the interstate, and the growth of Baker, Central and Zachary, Howell Place was something of a no-brainer.
But prejudices against north Baton Rouge run deep, and he had to work hard to convince lenders to get on board.
There were problems, too, with what Preis calls the Baton Rouge establishment—businesses that, he believes, feared the competition Howell Place would bring. He recalls how they fought zoning changes and tried to make it difficult for him to get the project done.
“They did everything they could to stop these three hotels,” he says, which he says made him realize he was “onto something big.”
Then there was the entrenched political culture of north Baton Rouge. Though he says it has improved in the last two decades, at the time he was trying to get Howell Place off the ground, some of the vestiges of the old way of doing things were still around.
“Some of the politicians, going way back, made a lot of promises that were self-serving to them,” he says.
To say the political culture of the past 15 years has changed—and to suggest it’s for the better—might be self-serving on Preis’ part. But he knows of what he speaks in terms of bringing economic development to north Baton Rouge, and he says creating an economic development district is key—even though, as he points out, he did Howell Place without the benefit of tax abatements or tax increment financing.
Preis says incentives are important for businesses that are willing to risk coming to the area. He says he has missed out on deals he could have inked for Howell Place had some sort of tax incentive been in place.
“I’ve had three national food chains that have showed great interest in opening retail stores up here,” he says. “But long story short, the economics just didn’t work. If they had had some incentives it would have made a difference.”
Preis also believes it’s critically important to streamline the planning and permitting process for north Baton Rouge. He says the city-parish should provide a single stop for developers eyeing the area, to help them cut through the bureaucracy.
“What they’re trying to do is hard enough,” he says. “We need to do something to make it easier for them.”
Finally, he says, it’s important to get elected officials and community leaders on the same page, focused on the good of the area and not their own personal gain.
That may sound like common sense. But it isn’t the way it has been done in the past. It’s time for that to change if north Baton Rouge hopes to attract the next Richard Preis with big plans for the area.