‘Business Report’ Publisher: The ‘green grass’ of Baton Rouge

This special anniversary issue represents a celebration of a 35-year journey for our Baton Rouge business community—and for Business Report. Much has happened, as you will see in the pages that follow. There has been progress and change in some areas—and in others, not nearly enough. But I have learned that you aim for progress, not perfection, and it is often a matter of one’s perspective. Celebrate your wins and learn from your losses—and appreciate the opportunity to be in the game.

As I reflect over the 35-year journey, I still remember the remarks made by the late Robert Greer Sr., CEO of Union National Life Insurance, as he was honored as Executive of the Year at our Baton Rouge Business Awards banquet in 1986. He graciously accepted the award and then said, “If I was starting all over, I would ask the good Lord for three things: 1) Let me have my same family; 2) Let me work with the people of Union National Life; and 3) Let me live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”

Maybe it was the wisdom that comes with age, experience and some gray hair. He seemed to know what many of us have learned over the years, that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Mr. Greer was grateful and celebrated the good things he had. He was a successful businessman, community leader and family man that understood the priorities in life.

I know the situation is different for many people, but there are some who climbed over the fence due to frustration or circumstances—such as their job—and found they gained a new appreciation for Baton Rouge and what makes it unique. It’s a quality that often is not about how you can spend your time, but whom you spend it with. Life can be about shared experiences with family and friends. It’s about the fabric and the culture—and the character of people. It can sometimes be hard to see or explain.

But it reveals itself clearly in a crisis like Katrina, the 2016 August floods—or now with Harvey. It’s the Cajun Navy. Neighbors helping neighbors of all races. Churches and synagogues serving and sharing. People cooking and opening their homes to others. Giving. Praying. It is so inspirational and amazing to see, and the rest of the nation—and the media—notices. I think they all realize, in a time of crisis, there is no place with more compassion than Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana. Our community is unique and special, and that has great value. We can all be proud of that very “green grass.”

My wife and I have traveled to some great cities offering some spectacular amenities. But when I weigh living there against being able to take my grandkids for lunch at Jay’s BBQ or The Pastime and then to see Mike the Tiger—like I took my daughters, and my parents took me—it’s an easy decision.

Our culture stands out to guests who come to a crawfish boil or cochon de lait. Their eyes get wide as they realize how much fun a meal can be. Or they experience our unique lifestyle at a festival with great food, art and dancing to incredible music. For natives to Louisiana, we just think of this as a normal weekend, but to others around the country, these are rare and very green pastures we enjoy.

And I haven’t mentioned Saturday night in Tiger Stadium with 102,000 of your closest friends. Or the experience of a short drive to hunt in the marsh, fish off the coast or simply stroll through the French Quarter for coffee and beignets. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the picture when you are in the picture.

Today, there is much that is changing in business and our society. Many millennials long for “authentic”—not the copies that simply become a commodity.

Culture matters. Authentic experiences are special and make “the grass greener.”

Name other states that have gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya or boudin? Add to that our zydeco, blues and jazz—and of course Mardi Gras. Louisiana is unique. And folks who visit or move away see that. Many of us here forget.

I visited the other day with an Olympic medal athlete from Africa who was in town. He had attended LSU and was now traveling the world. He said he realizes how much he misses Baton Rouge when he comes back to enjoy the wonderful people and food. He spoke with such passion and appreciation for the “green grass” in our hometown. I know you may have other stories—maybe your own—of those exploring elsewhere only to return to the Capital City. (And I know there are some of you who will tell me of friends or relatives who did leave and are enjoying a good life elsewhere, never to return. That’s OK. We all make choices and decide our own priorities in life.)

My wife and I have traveled to some great cities offering some spectacular amenities. But when I weigh living there against being able to take my grandkids for lunch at Jay’s BBQ or The Pastime and then to see Mike the Tiger—like I took my daughters, and my parents took me—it’s an easy decision.

I just know, whether it’s a neighborhood, church, school, club, team, company or city—much of the satisfaction and value comes from friendships with the people involved. Baton Rouge has extraordinary people. In my 62 years I have heard that over and over from natives, outsiders and guests. Our people are our greatest asset, and they make our grass greener, along with a very unique culture.

Don’t think I am saying everyone and everything is wonderful, or that our community has no problems or missed opportunities. That would be false. We have our challenges and I have pointed them out often here in this column for 35 years—and fought alongside many of you to bring change. Some have been resolved, some improved and some are unchanged. But most growing cities have problems. That will not change. We must keep fertilizing and mowing the grass—and pulling weeds—to compete and improve. There is still much work to do and we need vision for the future.

But as I step back and reflect on this 35-year journey, despite the challenges, I think Mr. Greer had it right—and I am proud to call Baton Rouge home.

A special journey

David Thomas has been on his own journey for almost 20 years. I penned a column titled “The real face of reform” in May 2012. That was the month David, a young African-American who I had first met at Children’s Charter School many years before, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a B.S. degree in neuroscience.

David came back to Baton Rouge and got two part-time jobs (including one here at our offices) while he pursued graduate school. He lived with his mom, Alean Thomas, right around the corner from the Triple S, where Alton Sterling was shot. He persevered on his journey and entered the graduate program in public health at Long Island University in 2015.

This past spring, David traveled with other students for an internship in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. And in May, he received his master’s degree in public health.

David Thomas is presented the Karen Goldman Spirit of Public Health Award, honoring a student with passion and leadership qualities like those of Dr. Goldman.

But the story doesn’t end there. I am proud to share that David just moved to Baltimore, where he is now at Morgan State University in the Ph.D. program working on his doctorate in public health.

David told me last week, “I want to be a leader that makes significant changes and helps solve political public health issues.”

David has come a long way from the elementary charter school that Jim Geiser, then head of Big Buddy, presented as an option to his mom. She made the right choice for David.

David said in 2012, “Children’s Charter School was where I got my real focus on education as the basis for my future. There was not time for distractions. We were there to learn. They told me they saw potential.” David is fulfilling that potential.

Dr. Fred Cerise, who was on the board of Children’s Charter and a mentor to David, told me in 2008 when David graduated from Redemptorist, “David recognized early on that education was his ticket to a brighter future, and he has never let go of that. He worked weekends for tuition to put himself in a challenging academic setting, and he excelled there.”

Geiser told me, “David is a special young man. He has fought the odds and now has the great opportunity to become whatever he chooses. He deserves great credit for what he has achieved.”

Unfortunately, not all young men beat those odds, and their journeys have a different ending—including David’s own brother, Demarcus Station. In 2013, Demarcus, just 19, who had dropped out of school long ago, was shot dead in his mom’s driveway. That was a tragedy and a very sad day when I got the call.

I am so proud of David and his journey. It has been a joy to watch and I congratulate him. As I said in 2012, David’s story is evidence that school choice can make a difference.

Change can happen

When you hit milestones like an anniversary, you reflect and look ahead. So what will the next 35 years look like? With the pace of change, you better not look more than five years ahead (or maybe three). What will be gone—or who? What will be new that will change our lives or businesses or community?

For proof that change can happen in Baton Rouge we need look no further than downtown. Three decades ago you could roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m. The old City Dock south of the bridge lay in ruin, rusting. It was sad symbol for our river city.

But out of the ashes rose a vision from a charrette lead by Andres Duany, which the Baton Rouge Area Foundation initiated.

At the time, one candidate for mayor in 2000 said, “Trying to revive downtown is like putting lipstick on a dead woman.” But look at downtown today. Where there is a will, there is a way.

BRAF, our city-parish and state governments, the Downtown Development District, Plan Baton Rouge (now CPEX), developers like Mike Wampold and others, entrepreneurs, banks, the EBR Parish Library, the District Court, The Water Institute of the Gulf, LSU, and others all have come together to make it happen. Even the old rusty City Dock is being transformed into The Water Institute, becoming a beautiful lighthouse on the Mississippi to all that enter our Capital City and port. Some dreams do come true.

Downtown is a great success story and a showpiece for our community, which is important to economic development and to keeping and attracting young talent. It is proof change can happen here—but we need to pick up the pace and now move on to other areas of our community. Let’s put on the list to get rid of the single lane coming off the Mississippi River bridge and create a beautiful central park at City Park—without a golf course. Keep dreaming.

A personal note of thanks

As many of you who own or manage a business know, much like a sports team, talent, commitment, attitude and teamwork are crucial to success. You have to have the right people to win.

I have been fortunate to work with some very smart, creative and dedicated people over these 35 years. I want to thank them all for sharing their talents.

Our current team members who produce all our publications, including Business Report, 225, inRegister, special projects and events, are spotlighted in a special section on pages 139-145. We wanted you to see the faces and names of those who make it all happen. Our CEO, Julio Melara, and I are proud of them all and their commitment to excellence and serving our readers, clients and community. We also want to thank each one.

But business owners know it is not just those who we work with daily that are important to success. It is also those who are behind the scenes—our families—who sacrifice for and support us. There would not have been a 35th anniversary reached without my wife, Teeta. I also want to thank my dad, who was my co-founder in 1982, for mentoring me and giving me the opportunity to take risks. He was my hero. And to my mom, who taught me compassion and serving. I miss them both.

Teeta and I are also grateful for Julio and Sherry Melara, our business partners for the last 20 years. What a blessing they are.

The newest additions to the family are my grandkids—Caden, Isaiah and Lane. They are now the reason I want Baton Rouge to thrive.

My family and I, as well as Julio and Sherry and their family, celebrate this journey of 35 years in Baton Rouge and all the growth it represents for our company and the community. We want to acknowledge God’s blessings, and we know our faith in Jesus has gotten each of us through the good times and the bad—and we are grateful.

We also want to thank you, our readers and our advertisers of the Capital Region, for your loyal support. It is our privilege to continue serving you. 

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