A town hall about north Baton Rouge on Thursday elicited its most rousing responses when the more than 100 attendees collectively challenged ongoing discussions about health care in north Baton Rouge and possibly moving the Baton Rouge Zoo.
Edgar Cage, a leader for Together Baton Rouge, said the nonprofit activist group wants to create another health district for north Baton Rouge as the city-parish eyes the creation of one around the Perkins Road/Essen Lane/Bluebonnet Boulevard corridor in the south. And when questioned about how to engage Baton Rouge’s hospitals to build up health care in the north, panel moderator Gary Chambers said the hospitals have turned their back on north Baton Rouge and that someone else needs to fill the void.
Cage was one of 16 community leaders, elected officials and activists on the panel. Along with the zoo and health care, other topics were the lack of economic development in north Baton Rouge and making casinos and bars smoke free.
BREC was put on the hot seat after Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and Zoo Director Phil Frost said only 1.2 percent of the zoo’s visitors come from its nearby community. But the people at the meeting said the zoo needs to do better outreach and advertising if it wants its neighbors to visit.
The zoo is mulling a possible $100 million rebuilding campaign that could include a location change. Asked by a show-of-hands how many want the zoo to stay in its current location, more than 75 percent of the audience raised their hands.
McKnight and Frost stressed that no decisions about moving the zoo have been made yet. But many in the audience claimed they were never asked for input and said they wanted to be part of the conversations.
“We paid for Penny, the elephant, who is not there anymore,” said panelist Robert Downing, former 1st Circuit Court of Appeal judge. “And I feel cheated.”
Penny was the name of the zoo’s original elephant decades ago, and new elephants came in over time. But the Baton Rouge Zoo sent its last elephant, Bozie, to the Smithsonian National Zoo in 2013 because of accreditation requirements after its other elephant, Judy, died.
State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said north Baton Rouge is stuck in a chicken-or-the-egg debacle where businesses don’t want to build because of the crime rates, but economic development could turn those rates around.
“Everything that exists on the south side of town, we want it on the north side of town,” Barrow said of the recreation, health care, business and other opportunities.
Adam Knapp, Baton Rouge Area Chamber CEO, said north Baton Rouge should use its assets like Southern University and the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport to entice businesses to come there. He said workforce training is especially important.
The airport has been successful in luring businesses to its land in recent years. Ron Sutton, the business development manager for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. on the airport’s land, said 175 of Coca Cola’s 515 employees come from the north Baton Rouge Metro Council districts.
He was responding to an email from Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel to Airport Director Anthony Marino.
“There are 2600 employees in and around the airport, I would venture to say 1 percent of them live in the vicinity of 70807, 70811, or 70714,” Banks-Daniel wrote in her Feb. 11 email. “The only lease occupant that engaged the community in its hiring was ABC Auto Auction. The other lease occupants have NO relationship with community leadership, therefore NO accountability to partner.”
Though the sentiment at Thursday’s meeting was finding solutions for north Baton Rouge, many of the attendees and panelists disagreed on the best measures to get there.
Former Planning Commission member Sarah Holliday-James took aim at Barrow and former state Sen. Sharon Weston-Broome, D-Baton Rouge, both of whom were panelists. Holliday-James said north Baton Rouge has fallen apart under their leadership.
Broome said she fought hard for Baton Rouge, and referenced capital outlay money she put in the budget for BREC’s Anna T. Jordan Community Park. Then Broome shot back, saying she never saw Holliday-James at the numerous community meetings she’s hosted as a state senator.