Riegel: What Baton Rouge can learn from Cincinnati

“Why Cincinnati?” a member of Baton Rouge’s business community asked me in late May, when I mentioned I was going on BRAC’s Canvas Benchmarking Workshop. “You’d probably learn more in Hattiesburg.”

BRAC’s periodic canvas trips tend to elicit a certain amount of snarkiness from those who 1) dislike the chamber and the downtown business crowd it’s perceived to embody, 2) mistakenly assume the public will get stuck with the tab for a council member’s airfare or the mayor’s chicken dinner, or 3) think the whole thing is a waste of time.

Such criticisms are unfounded. The recent trip to southern Ohio was hardly a junket, and there were plenty of valuable lessons to be learned from The Queen City, as the one-time jewel of the Midwest is still fondly called.

Like Baton Rouge, Cincinnati—a city of some 300,000 residents—has a large, low-income population, blighted neighborhoods and a troubled mass transit system. Like Baton Rouge, it is part of a larger metro area that comprises prosperous suburban communities, though its metro area is admittedly three times larger than the Capital Region.

But unlike Baton Rouge—all of Louisiana, for that matter—Cincinnati has made impressive strides to address its problems over the past 25 years by working collaboratively on a series of redevelopment and economic development initiatives led almost exclusively by the business community.

Today, it has a redeveloped riverfront, a revitalized historic core, an emerging tech sector, model health care programs and, significantly, a growing economy.

It’s hard to imagine such private sector leadership coming from south Louisiana. Granted, Cincinnati has significant corporate heft. The metro area boasts nine Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble and Kroger. It is home to 15 others on the Fortune 1000 list, and dozens with significant operational bases in the area.

The entire state of Louisiana, by comparison, has just two Fortune 500 companies. Baton Rouge no longer has any.

But it’s not just the size or number of big companies in Cincinnati that have made the difference and helped that city bootstrap its way out of its Rust Belt challenges.

It’s the collective mindset of the corporate leadership, which has come to recognize that a rising tide lifts all ships. This means agreeing on a shared vision for the community and—this is important—investing in programs that help the poor by providing better health care, housing, job training and mass transit.

Unfortunately, those from Baton Rouge who need to hear those stories the most didn’t bother to go on the trip.

In every panel discussion on the trip, we heard about how investing in the inner city and its low-income population isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the best way to accomplish economic development. And it pays off when big companies come to the city and create thousands of jobs.

How many times do we have to hear this in Louisiana before it will sink in?

The story that really hit home was about the relationship between a couple of key business groups that have led the redevelopment efforts, the Cincinnati Business Committee—which comprises the city’s top 20 corporate CEOs—and the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, a larger group of mid-cap company executives.

The CBC is a long standing organization, whose elite membership has a global perspective. and bought into the vision for redeveloping the city’s historic core a couple of decades ago.

But in the mid-2000s, its leaders realized they needed to better engage the area’s many mid-cap company executives, whose perspectives and concerns were more parochial. These were the guys whose companies were in the suburbs, and they didn’t see the wisdom in investing in the inner city.

Sound familiar?

So the CBC created and cultivated the CRBC, and over the past decade has educated them on why investing in inner city Cincinnati is good for all of Cincinnati.

Today, the CRBC membership has grown to more than 80 mid-market CEOs, who fund programs like Teach for America and lead initiatives to build a new bridge across the Ohio River.

The CBC and the CRBC are two different breeds, by their own admission. But they work together and they’re literally contributing millions of their own dollars, which they’ve leveraged to build not just a new baseball stadium, but to fund workforce training programs and diversity initiatives, among other things.

It sounds simple. It’s not. And it’s not all wine and roses in Cincinnati, which spent millions on a modern streetcar nobody rides and still has a large, visible homeless population.

But there is a lot of progress and reason for optimism.

Unfortunately, those from Baton Rouge who need to hear those stories the most didn’t bother to go on the trip. Rather, most of the attendees came from nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations, law firms and local government. They were an eager audience, but they already buy into the redevelopment thesis and don’t have the wherewithal to make it happen anyway.

Where is the business leadership in Baton Rouge? And, why is no one from the local business community willing to take the reins and rally private sector support for programs that help everyone in the community? Why were so few actual business leaders on the canvas trip? Perhaps they were too busy lobbying the Legislature to preserve corporate tax breaks, the state’s seemingly sole strategy for economic development?

“Sometimes these trips are great,” Baton Rouge General Medical Center CEO Edgar Tenreiro noted on the way home. “But they’re also a little bit depressing because you realize we’re so far behind.” 

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