The new IBM building. The “fairness ordinance” anti-discrimination measure. The Plan Baton Rouge blueprint for downtown development. The “Alive” riverside attraction. The Bluebonnet Swamp nature center.
Behind each of those successes and failures — and dozens of other initiatives ranging from big-ticket tax proposals to literary awards — is a group of wealthy donors who for decades have helped steer much of the debate in Baton Rouge, largely out of public view.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation prefers to operate in the wings, purposefully deflecting attention, because its leader, John Davies, says the agency is most effective when it stays out of the headlines.
BRAF was instrumental in what state and local leaders have dubbed some of the most critical projects in the capital area. When the accolades are doled out, though, BRAF officials mostly step aside and allow elected officials and economic development groups to enjoy the limelight.
But in some cases, especially when plans fail, remaining in the background helps shield them from blame.
The average Baton Rouge resident probably doesn’t realize that some of the most controversial tax increase plans and public policy debates in recent years were backed or initiated by the foundation. For example, BRAF developed key components of both Mayor-President Kip Holden’s first and last attempts at multimillion-dollar infrastructure tax proposals and was the driving force behind an effort to pass a local law banning discrimination against gay people. For each of these, BRAF labored behind the scenes, while elected officials led the public campaigns. Ultimately, the two tax plans and the proposed local law failed either at the hands of voters or before the Metro Council.
Despite these high-profile defeats, BRAF’s influence is undeniable. One objective measurement is the money at the group’s disposal. Growing steadily over the past 50 years and enjoying a massive boost from a significant real estate donation in the early 1990s, the group amassed a war chest of about $600 million in assets, making BRAF the richest community foundation in the Gulf South.
BRAF adherents don’t downplay what they see as the group’s importance. “The foundation is now, and has become, the most influential institution in the state of Louisiana, and that’s including the state of Louisiana (government),” said John Noland, a former BRAF chairman and active donor. “Take a look around Baton Rouge for the last 15 years, and name the things that BRAF’s imprint has not been on.”
But some emphasize that BRAF leaders seem out of touch with most parish residents. “Their agenda and the majority of voters in East Baton Rouge Parish — it’s like mixing oil and water in some of the stuff they do,” said Bernie Pinsonat, political consultant and pollster.
Changing Baton Rouge
BRAF was established in 1964, but it’s only in the past decade that the agency’s presence in Baton Rouge is readily apparent, with sponsored projects mushrooming up across the parish.
Once known mostly for its work giving grants to charitable agencies, which is still a core mission, BRAF leaders are now at the table for many of the parish’s most high-profile planning efforts.
“We’ve helped in a small way to advance a progressive agenda for Baton Rouge,” said Davies, longtime BRAF president and CEO. “I do believe we’ve done that. People are hopeful that this community is a progressive Southern community and not sleepy.”
Davies particularly takes pride in projects that appeal to young professionals, like reshaping downtown Baton Rouge and boosting businesses there, supporting the arts community and attracting companies that provide meaningful, well-paid jobs.
In 2013, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that tech giant IBM would open a technology center with 800 jobs in downtown Baton Rouge. IBM would get a new eight-story building out of the deal, and an apartment high-rise would be constructed next door. All of the infrastructure is being built by BRAF’s development arm, Commercial Properties.
While many officials and agencies — and millions of dollars of public money — were involved in luring IBM, the secretary for Louisiana Economic Development said the foundation’s assistance crafting incentives helped seal the deal. Perhaps as critical was BRAF’s work over more than a decade reviving Baton Rouge’s faded downtown into a place a company would want to locate.
LED Secretary Stephen Moret sent an email to BRAF leaders after the March 2013 announcement was made, personally thanking them for their contributions. In the email, he acknowledges that during a “brainstorming session,” BRAF helped solve the problem of a lack of office space “that would be acceptable to the company.”
In addition, Moret wrote that an IBM executive “indicated that projects your organizations helped spearhead over the last 10-15 years had a significant impact on how IBM viewed Baton Rouge.”
BRAF uses real estate as both a way to change the Baton Rouge landscape and improve the economy. Commercial Properties’ projects — from the bustling Acadian Village shopping center to Bon Carré Research Park on Florida Boulevard — also are used to help finance BRAF’s operations.
BRAF was a key partner in building the Shaw Center and the Hilton Baton Rouge Capital Center, which helped kick-start the downtown renaissance a decade ago. BRAF also got started the Center for Planning Excellence, called CPEX, a nonprofit involved with regional planning.
“From the standpoint of physical improvement, I do think that structures can be metaphors for communities,” BRAF’s leader Davies said. “You get the sense that leaders of the community have a sense of ambition.”
Aside from buildings, BRAF is deeply involved in some of the most pressing issues in the region.
BRAF raised and granted $45 million to help rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was responsible for doling out $100 million in grants from BP after the 2010 oil spill — about a quarter of which went toward paying for the Water Institute project it oversees.
BRAF leaders are championing a plan to restore the LSU lakes, which are at risk of reverting into swamps. The group also started a nonprofit that now oversees the parish animal shelter, aiming to reduce the euthanasia rate.
More recently, BRAF has tiptoed into the divisive debate about the formation of the proposed new St. George city in the southern part of the parish. While not taking an official position on the issue, the group helped fund two studies that concluded both that the city would financially devastate Baton Rouge government operations and that the new city of St. George would need to raise taxes on residents.
Despite the long list of wins in his column, Davies equates receiving credit with receiving attention. And for him, receiving attention is a distraction.
“Now more people know about us, which is both good and bad,” Davies said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to be politicized, and we don’t want to be the issue. We want to be the vehicle.”
BRAF policy proposals tank
There are times when BRAF’s ambition, especially when it comes to sweeping public policy proposals, outpaces its bank account.
“Sometimes, people probably can’t see what he (BRAF President John Davies) envisions because it’s way out there, and they’re not always ready for it,” said Christel Slaughter, past BRAF board of directors chairwoman.
The agency has twice designed projects that required Baton Rouge politicians or voters to agree to more taxes. And, both times, the infrastructure proposals — championed by Mayor-President Kip Holden — struck out.
Just recently, BRAF helped put together the $335 million public safety tax plan that would have funded a new parish prison, a juvenile detention center, a new office for the district attorney and — most importantly to the nonprofit — a treatment facility for the mentally ill that has been called the “restoration center.”
Late last year, Holden, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and District Attorney Hillar Moore III began promoting the tax proposal. But the true impetus came out of the BRAF offices.
Davies said agency staffers have long been researching housing solutions for the mentally ill. About a year ago, they shifted focus to figuring out how to help mentally ill people who were getting caught in the criminal justice system for misdemeanor crimes.
About eight months ago, according to its own staff, BRAF decided the ideal solution would be to adopt a model utilized in San Antonio.
BRAF officers met with the Mayor’s Office and then law enforcement leaders late last year where they discussed the restoration center and other pending public safety infrastructure needs. The tax plan was crafted and presented to the Metro Council for approval in January.
Gautreaux said BRAF was “driving the train” for the tax proposal. He said he had early discussions with BRAF to show them the conditions of the Parish Prison and discuss mental health issues, but ultimately he wasn’t at the table when the tax proposal was crafted. Moore also said he wasn’t brought into the conversation about a tax plan until late last year.
“BRAF played a big part in moving this forward to getting us to where we are today,” Gautreaux said. While Holden’s administration previously has tried to pass taxes to pay for a new parish prison, Gautreaux said it wasn’t until he heard from BRAF last year that discussion of a tax proposal started again.
While BRAF worked on the project for several months, Metro Council members only learned about the concept about a month before they were asked to vote to put it on the May ballot. They received the fine-tuned details one week before the vote.
Several council members complained they didn’t have enough time to study the tax plan, which influenced their decision to reject putting it before the voters.
Davies, for his part, said council members were invited to tours of the prison and lectures about the restoration center. He also said he knew which votes he had lined up by lunchtime the day before the vote, but something happened by the afternoon that triggered council members to vote “no.”
An early defeat was arguably more bracing. Seven years ago, BRAF leaders played a major role in the mayor’s first infrastructure plan, a proposal to roll out almost $1 billion worth of improvements.
The plan included a riverfront development called “Alive,” a signature, $225 million project developed by the foundation. It included an aquarium, an outdoor amphitheater and a scientific research facility run by LSU that all would be tied to the theme of the Mississippi River.
Davies said BRAF spent about $400,000 conceiving the plan. Voters ultimately rejected the tax plan in 2008 and a slightly pared back version of it in 2009. BRAF was not involved in 2009 because the group had less input, Davies said.
The mayor has since said riverfront development was ultimately what killed the proposals, because voters perceived it as excessive. Holden did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story over the course of a week.
Holden left the project out of his third tax proposal entirely. But that plan was rejected by the Metro Council in 2011 and never made it to voters.
Davies calls the rejection of Alive the agency’s most “spectacular failure.”
But Davies said the Water Institute of the Gulf and the Water Campus — a center of coastal education and research — which celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony last month and is developed by Commercial Properties, will fulfill a similar research void.
Lobbying Metro Council
BRAF’s lack of success in local politics is not for a lack of effort.
Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe and former Metro Council member and Pro Tem Mike Walker both described being bombarded by BRAF leaders.
“Any project that they’re pushing, they’re effective at putting pressure on you to see it their way,” Loupe said. “And that happens a lot of times. To all of us.”
While as a nonprofit BRAF can’t donate to council members, the group’s donors can. They also can lobby. Much of BRAF’s influence comes from the clout of its board members and donor base, including Matt McKay, partner of All Star Automotive; Thomas Turner, chief operating officer of Turner Industries; and the Reilly family, who own Lamar Advertising.
Walker described the BRAF presence at City Hall during his 12-year tenure as constant.
“They would show up a lot; they would call you when there was a need, and they felt that need often,” Walker said.
Last year, BRAF prominently, but quietly, played a key role in the debate surrounding the so-called “fairness ordinance,” a proposal local law that would have barred discrimination against gay and transgender people in areas of employment and housing.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle sponsored the ordinance, but BRAF’s own staff, network of powerful board members and wealthy donors organized the campaign.
A group of BRAF-affiliated leaders, who called themselves “Be Fair Baton Rouge,” met frequently in BRAF’s office spaces ahead of the vote, dispatching various influential supporters to individually lobby specific council members perceived as potential “yes” votes. The Metro Council has for many years voted against various proposals aimed to express tolerance toward the gay community.
The most recent effort resulted in a packed chamber on the night of the vote, with the parish’s most influential and wealthy business leaders urging the Metro Council to support the ordinance.
BRAF staff members attended the vote but did not speak during the public forum.
The council ended up rejecting the ordinance, but it was the first time since these issues began coming up at the Metro Council eight years ago that prominent business and civic leaders had gotten so deeply involved.
Metro Councilman John Delgado, a fairness ordinance supporter, argued that the defeat proves that BRAF is not as major of a local player as believed.
“If the Baton Rouge Area Foundation were so influential, we’d have the fairness ordinance passed,” Delgado said. “They’re just like any other lobbying group.”
Davies said he was particularly troubled by the fairness ordinance’s failure.
“That was the first time I’ve really been surprised,” Davies said. “It troubled me because it sends a bad message ... about our sense of inclusiveness and tolerance, and it’s not reflective of who we are.”
While the fairness ordinance public policy debate was somewhat of a departure from BRAF’s development-oriented agenda, it was in line with the kind of legacy Davies wants for the group.
“We’ve been part of making the case that this can be a pretty cool community for my kids and grandkids,” Davies said. “We’ve proven that you can get stuff done here, you really can.”
But Davies said he is moving past the defeat. Now, he’s focused on BRAF’s growth, estimating that the foundation will be worth $1 billion in the next five years.
The IBM building will open this summer, and construction on several phases of the Water Campus will kick off this year. The campus’s potential impact is threefold. Proponents hope it will bring good jobs, important coastal and Gulf research, and it also will develop the riverfront.
“The building on the dock is going to be the place to go. The Shaw Center won’t be forgotten, but the new place to have a cup of coffee or glass of wine is the restaurant there (on the campus),” Davies said. “All of these successes tend to be external indicators that this community is a community on the move.”