‘Business Report’ publisher: Metro Council gets high on Amazon HQ2 and search for new airport director

Did someone bring “special brownies” with an extra ingredient to the Oct. 11 Metro Council meeting when the council passed a resolution urging Amazon to consider East Baton Rouge for its new HQ2, which would bring a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs? The resolution said EBR “has a stable and business-friendly environment, has urban and suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent, and is a [community] that thinks big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options.” Huh?

I am a hometown boy and love Baton Rouge, and I consider myself an optimist, but let’s get real here. I had to laugh (because I didn’t want to cry) when I read the part about “thinks big and creatively.” Shoot, it appears the Metro Council often doesn’t even “think” at all. And “creative?” Not.

So, what are the odds of Amazon selecting Baton Rouge over the 237 other places bidding to become home to HQ2? “Way long,” would be the correct answer.

If our community wants to play in the big leagues and compete, we have to prepare our community, get our act together and be professional—and think different.

Let me ask a few questions: Before Amazon would invest $5 billion, don’t you suppose they would come check us out rather than relying on some “resolution” from the local government? If they visited Baton Rouge, do you think Amazon executives would be impressed if they watched Cable 21 in their hotel rooms and witnessed the antics and actions during a council meeting? Would they find our infrastructure sufficient before their 50,000 new employees arrived? And would our schools be acceptable to the children of this tech crowd? What about the workforce? Crime rate? And finally, their bid requests an international airport. (How would we stack up when our Metro Council can’t even figure out how to conduct a national search for our airport’s director?) Did the Metro Council consider any of these questions or were they just “high” on BR?

We can’t operate with our typical small town thinking and good ol’ boy politics and then suddenly pretend we can play in the Big Leagues. 

These are tough questions for our leaders to face. But we haven’t even discussed incentives. Just look at what a few others are offering as noted by Reuters last week:

  • The governor of New Jersey proposed $7 billion in potential credits against state and city taxes.
  • The governor of California is offering some $300 million in incentives over several years and other benefits.
  • Austin has submitted its bid and is the headquarters of Whole Foods Market, which Amazon recently acquired.

Credit ratings and research company Moody’s has ranked Austin as the most likely to win based on its labor pool, costs of doing business and quality of life, among other criteria.

According to Everest Group, a Dallas-based consulting and research firm, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C., will likely be Amazon’s top candidates.

Stiff competition there. We are going to need stronger leadership with a big sense of vision—and top talent in our government agencies—to get needed changes. We can’t operate with our typical small town thinking and good ol’ boy politics and then suddenly pretend we can play in the Big Leagues. Amazon will discover our past, our problems and our politics—and we won’t get to play. How our politicians act and the decisions they make every day matter now—and will impact our future.

Baton Rouge has much potential and we all want the best for our community. But this “Amazon bid” just revealed there is much work to be done. Let’s get busy.

Trust in government

What more would Amazon learn if they went online and started to read comments by our citizens on taxes or trust in local government? Would they like what they read? I saw the online post below regarding Mayor Broome’s recent proposed transportation tax, which didn’t even get on the ballot. I think this comment on a recent Daily Report item reflects the mood of many voters who feel they got screwed by local government and the Metro Council in the recent past—and they won’t forget it.

“Weezy Anna” wrote, “I just can’t get behind another local tax. I’ve been played for a sucker twice. I voted for the CATS tax because I wanted a better city and better public transportation is part of that. I voted for the Council on Aging tax because who wouldn’t vote to support older citizens in need? Well, both have been a disaster and my property taxes just keep going up. And the problem with all these dedicated taxes is that we now can’t allocate the money where we ‘need’ it. So, the answer is ‘no.’”

Our elected officials better wake up and realize the anger and lack of trust among voters—and respond. We won’t be fooled by a fancy resolution about Amazon HQ2.

Airport is good ol’ boy politics

It seems some elected officials get into office and believe they are “all powerful” and “untouchable” by voters, even if they act stupid, pursue their own self-interest, make deals with colleagues (as if no one will find out) and simply snub their noses at the public. They should remember, “pride goeth before a fall.”

I am seeing that with the Metro Council and the national search for a new metro airport director. Council member Trae Welch, who is also a member of the Airport Commission and a pilot, is driving the train to name interim director Ralph Hennessy the permanent director at the Oct. 25 Metro Council meeting. A year ago Welch had said there would be a national search. Now he wants to snub his nose at the public and best practices, and instead cut a deal with his council buddies. Tara Wicker says she will play ball and vote for Hennessy if she is guaranteed “her guy,” who is from Baton Rouge and working now in Florida, will get the No. 2 position. Otherwise she is going to vote for the national search.

Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg has a motion to conduct a national search, but it mysteriously got moved on the agenda behind Welch’s item to appoint Hennessy.

At the same time, we recently learned that former airport director Iray LeDoux, who retired in 1995 (and sued the city of Baton Rouge for compensatory time), has been back on the job as a “consultant” for the past four years. The 85-year-old has a contract right under the $17,500 threshold required for council approval. In the past year it was raised from $15,200 to $17,000. This threshold issue was a hot item for the council recently on the BRAVE contracts. Wondering who will bring that up at the Oct. 25 council meeting and if there will be “a call for an investigation.” Nah, not as long as it is their good ol’ boy. Can you say “hypocrites”?

I bet the folks at Amazon would get a good laugh out of reading this. We must demand better. We deserve it. And we won’t get to the big league unless we do.

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