When the Legislature convenes a special session in the middle of March to start doling out political power for the next decade, the Capital Region will be the big dog on the block.
According to the 2010 census, Orleans and Jefferson parishes together lost nearly 164,000 people, making it possible for East Baton Rouge to emerge as the biggest parish in the state simply by gaining 27,319 residents.
Two of East Baton Rouge’s neighbors—Ascension and Livingston parishes—led Louisiana in growth, with nearly 40% each. Numerically, too, those parishes grew more than EBR, with Livingston gaining 36,212 people and Ascension 30,588.
Being big certainly has its advantages, namely power and money. Orleans Parish, which has long dominated in both, is expected to lose at least three or four state House seats and one Senate seat—maybe more. Inevitably, some of those seats will go to the Capital Region.
And with people and power comes money. Local taxes and state and federal assistance are inextricably linked to population, and in the case of the latter two, politics, which means the Capital Region could see more of it.
The region also now finds itself in a whole new economic development weight class. Metropolitan regions with populations of 800,000 or more are classified as major markets, which opens the doors to prospective business and industry looking for a certain workforce size. Now we’re competing with the likes of Nashville, Richmond, Jacksonville, Austin and others that we’ve looked to for inspiration for so long.
But every upside has its downside, and being the winner in the population lottery is no exception. Baton Rouge and other communities in the region have long known they lack the emergency personnel, infrastructure and other services necessary to adequately serve a growing population.
But the Capital Region remains challenged when it comes to getting nine parishes to cooperate on mutually beneficial projects. Resentments, suspicions and tensions that ran high between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the months after Hurricane Katrina could reemerge, now that the population shifts are official. And no one benefits from inter- and intraregional squabbling.
“If Baton Rouge cares most about regionalism, especially as it relates to New Orleans, then it invests nothing in ballyhooing these numbers,” says Elliott Stonecipher, a Louisiana demographer and political analyst.
“Others may call it the largest place in Louisiana, but Baton Rouge never should. It was a theoretical discussion until these numbers came out, and now it’s a period at the end of a braggadocio’s sentence. So just don’t use the sentence. There is, among opinion leaders, a broad understanding that the state is not growing, so for any place in the state to make a big deal out of its growth almost by definition will cause a backlash.”
When the Baton Rouge Area Chamber started working on its capital campaign in early 2010, one of its biggest selling points was deemed to be that the population of the nine-parish metro area would reach 800,000 in five years.
As it turned out, that prediction was off: The Capital Region had already reached that critical mass. It’s a threshold that’s significant to economic developers because it means the region has grown from mid-market to major-market status.
“Some prospects, in looking for a market to consider, start by looking only in major markets to ascertain a certain number of workers,” BRAC President/CEO Adam Knapp says. “The fact is, we may have been passed over for projects since the last census, even though we probably had the workforce capacity. Now you’ll see us be competitive with a whole different category of regions.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker says it’s critical for the Baton Rouge metropolitan area to rebrand itself as the economic hub of Louisiana.
“We need to plant the seed in the minds of site selectors, company CEOs and headhunters that this is the largest metro area in the state,” he says. “I see more opportunity than I see challenges.”
But the region has some issues to address to make itself more attractive to those who might choose to call it home: quality education, public safety and cultural opportunities.
Troy Blanchard, an associate professor of sociology at LSU, says East Baton Rouge, in particular, might benefit in learning from the experience of other major metropolitan areas and perhaps avoid their downfalls, like deterioration of the urban core.
“It’s a position we’re not really accustomed to,” he says. “We have to start to embrace more of a big-city atmosphere, like New Orleans has for a long time.”
Mayor Kip Holden doesn’t have to look far to see the challenges posed by having the largest population in the state.
Public safety has been an ongoing concern in the parish. Statistically speaking, Baton Rouge might not meet ideal ratios of police officers, firemen, paramedics and other first-responders to handle the larger population.
“Even before these numbers came out, I made it very clear that we have to start at least one police academy this year and two fire academies because we’re having more calls on those agencies,” Holden says. “We have to make sure our system isn’t overrun by demands for service.”
He’s also concerned about ongoing infrastructure problems—not just roads, but things like bridges and drainage as well. Two bond issues that included such items have failed.
“Some have found it politically convenient to pass the buck, but we can’t afford to do that anymore,” Holden says. “I don’t want to be around for shoulda, coulda, woulda. We have bad infrastructure that has to be addressed. It’s on emergency status.”
It’s true: Baton Rouge can expect additional state and federal dollars to pay for such projects, given its new population, but analysts say it will hardly be enough to pay for the needs.
Consider that each additional new resident counted in the census brings an average of $1,400 in additional funding. For East Baton Rouge, that means about $38 million, hardly enough to cover the infrastructure needed to support the additional population.
Add to that the fact that the federal government is widely predicted to trim as much as $3 trillion in aggregate spending that flows to states and cities over the next decade.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” economist Loren Scott says. “Typically, you get more spending and more tax revenues with a spike in population, but you also get a greater demand on services.”
Stonecipher predicts the region will be increasingly forced to look to alternative funding, such as public-private partnerships, toll roads and bridges, or possibly the outright sale of major corridors to private interests to be able to fund infrastructure.
“It’s a double-edged sword for Baton Rouge to have this high of a population,” Stonecipher says. “If you have the infrastructure to support it, that’s one thing. But when you don’t, that’s the other edge of that sword. Baton Rouge is going to have its hands full just trying to effectively cope.”
The redistricting process will be the first, and likely most critical, test of how the new balance of power will play out for the next decade.
Blanchard and others say one of the most important issues facing the Capital Region now is its inability to work together as a cohesive unit to address things like infrastructure. Redistricting will determine how that power gets distributed across the Baton Rouge metropolitan area.
“Interfacing with our fast-growing neighbors may be as important as anything else,” Blanchard says. “How do we function as a true metropolitan area, rather than a loose confederation?
“East Baton Rouge has grown, so we’re certainly in a position where we can get more representation. But there are also arguments for greater representation for Ascension and Livingston. How that gets distributed across the area and how that will be divvied out will be an interesting process to watch.”
Holden is clearly frustrated by the lack of regional cooperation. He says East Baton Rouge Parish was shortchanged this year by the Legislature, which he says favored places like Central, Ascension and Livingston.
“Just because part of the road comes into Baton Rouge, they’re acting as if they’re giving us some money, but they gave us no money to eliminate the problems in Baton Rouge proper,” he says. “The officials in Livingston and Ascension act like we do not exist, but the bottom of that funnel is Baton Rouge. We have to get relief here or the problem is going to get much worse.”
Stonecipher says it’s clear the Capital Region is not a community, given the brouhaha over the loop. If it doesn’t achieve some sort of cohesion through the right leadership, he says, “Baton Rouge residents are going to have to agree to pay for infrastructure that they know perfectly well their neighbors are going to help break down over time.”
The redistricting process also could further strain relations between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Holden has already made a positive gesture in that regard, telling New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu he will add his name to a possible request for another look at the Crescent City’s census count.
The black congressional district will be particularly significant, given that some proposals call for lines to be drawn as far west as Scotlandville to create a minority congressional district in Louisiana. That likely will prove unpopular in New Orleans.
“EBR has many, many blessings,” Stonecipher says. “If it also ends up with a Democrat minority member of Congress and a conservative white Republican member of Congress, that’s just one more blessing. That’s a cup they may want to let pass.”
From an economic development standpoint, Knapp says, efforts to market all of southeast Louisiana, including Baton Rouge, New Orleans and everything in between, as one super region will continue. He says it’s more critical than ever, given that the area now will be competing with regions of as many as 10 million. The Capital Region has a population of only 802,000, compared to the super region, which boasts 2 million.
Says Knapp: “This only strengthens the case of why we have to work together.”