Baton Rouge's Redevelopment Authority got off to an ambitious start after its creation in 2007, investing in such high-profile projects as a YMCA in north Baton Rouge and a center for autistic children near Gardere Lane.
They were projects that showcased what redevelopment could mean for a community. But the RDA has had trouble sustaining that momentum in recent years, limping along and coming dangerously close to running out of money at times. Only a couple of high profile projects are now in the works after years of planning.
The agency has struggled to meet the expectations of community members and political leaders who once saw it as a possible game changer in fighting blight in Old South Baton Rouge, the Choctaw Drive corridor, Zion City/Glen Oaks, Northdale, Melrose East, Scotlandville and other pockets of the parish.
Now, the RDA is primed for a reset, with LSU Law Professor Chris Tyson’s appointment as its director and a promise by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome to fund the agency with $500,000 from next year's budget. Broome also recently gave the RDA the added responsibility of overseeing programs once run by her Office of Community Development.
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Still, if the RDA is to work as originally conceived, it’s going to require more than the money the city-parish is prepared to kick in and the extra responsibilities from Broome. A 2015 business plan said an effective RDA would require an annual budget between $1.5 million and $4.5 million. Tyson's success may hinge upon his ability to find it.
"Being able to rebuild the trust in the RDA is really going to take a methodical approach of, 'This is what we're going to do, we're going to report back to you on our progress and if it doesn't work out the way we thought, we're going to tell you that,'" said Christel Slaughter, whose SSA Consultants firm wrote the 2015 business plan.
"And then people will begin to believe in it again," she added. "I do think we, as a community, had some unrealistic expectations of what could happen, how quickly it could happen."
Tyson, who describes himself as "a cities guy, a development guy and a social justice guy," teaches classes about urban land use and development at the LSU Law Center. Tyson helped lead Broome's transition into office and was chosen for the RDA job with a $155,000 salary without any search.
In a recent interview, Tyson described how recent focus on the lack of development in north Baton Rouge should be an impetus for people to give the RDA another chance.
"There's a growing interest in seeing the lopsided development end," Tyson said.
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Asked about funding, Tyson said he hopes the RDA will prove its worth to receive more money from the city-parish in the future. As for whether he will pursue tax credits or other outside funding avenues, Tyson said he was not sure yet.
The Louisiana Legislature created the RDA in 2007.
Slaughter and Center for Planning Excellence Director Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, who helped draw up the agency's plans, both said that an ideal and fully funded RDA would have two focuses.
One would be code enforcement and tackling the problem of blight by strengthening the city-parish's blight ordinances and cracking down on landlords and property owners who do not follow the rules.
The other focus would be the actual redevelopment work of restoring blighted properties and convincing private developers to invest in them. All the while, the RDA would build up a land bank of properties.
"The bigger, sexier more glamorous redevelopment is what everyone gets excited about," Slaughter said. "But that's harder to do, it's more expensive to do and it doesn't really make sense to do that without the land bank and the code enforcement."
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Former RDA chief executive Walter Monsour appeared to focus mostly on the redevelopment side of the work. Under his leadership, the RDA secured millions of dollars in federal new market tax credits and used them to help bring to fruition the ExxonMobil YMCA on Howell Boulevard, the downtown Hampton Inn and Suites and the Emerge Center on Innovation Park Drive.
The RDA also helped finance the mixed income Elysian Apartments on Spanish Town Road and the Autumn Place and Willow Creek townhomes in north Baton Rouge run by the Housing Authority.
And the RDA hired consultants to create community improvement plans for Scotlandville, Zion City, Northdale, the Choctaw corridor and Melrose East. Metro Council members in those areas say they have not forgotten about the plans and that they hope to see movement on them soon.
But by 2012, the funding picture for RDA grew bleaker and Monsour started asking for money from City Hall. The agency failed in its efforts to secure more tax credits and Monsour resigned in late 2014, amid questions swirling about his hefty salary and the RDA's dealings with Monsour's son. Monsour declined to comment for this article.
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As interim director for the past few years, Gwen Hamilton has tried to keep the RDA on even footing and former Mayor-President Kip Holden approved $300,000 stipends for the RDA in his 2016 and 2017 budgets to keep the agency running through this year.
Two high-profile projects that began under Monsour have chugged along under Hamilton: the Ardendale concept meant to revitalize the Ardenwood and Lobdell areas, and the redevelopment of an old Entergy site on Government Street.
Hamilton said progress on Ardendale — where Baton Rouge Community College has recently opened an automotive training center, the School Board is building a career high school and apartment complexes have been renovated — shows the RDA's relevance even on a shoestring budget.
Construction is also expected to begin soon on the "Electric Depot" development on the Entergy site, which is to include apartments, a bowling alley, a pizza parlor with a microbrewery and more.
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"Both of these projects have the desirable effect of regenerating a part of town that is distressed," said longtime RDA board Chairman John Noland. "When people go to the Electric Depot and have a pizza, and have a beer, and have a good time, and look around the neighborhood that they see revitalizing with their own eyes, people are going to say, 'Man we need this!"
"They stand to set an example of what an RDA project could do for our city," Noland continued. "But man, we could use 100 of them — 500 of them!"
Noland said it's possible the RDA could exist one day on self-generated funds if it can build up a body of work. But he said the city-parish's financial support is essential until that body of work exists so the RDA can eventually draw developer fees, interest income, rental income and more.
"You can only do things if you've got funding," said Thomas, from CPEX. "People say, 'They spent too much money in the beginning.' But if you don't fund it and you don't put the right people in charge, you're not going to be successful."
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Many Metro Council members, who will soon have to say "yes" or "no" to Broome's proposed 2018 budget with the RDA funding in it, say they are bullish on the RDA's future.
Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said she's happy with the progress on Ardendale, but that she's waiting for redevelopment to follow in the adjacent neighborhoods. Councilman LaMont Cole said his north Baton Rouge district could use an aggressive approach from the RDA on blight, while Councilwoman Erika Green noted that the RDA helped secure funding for new townhomes in Fortune Addition.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks differed, saying she could not point to anything in her Scotlandville district in the past four years that the RDA has done. She said they added a refrigerator to a local store to stock fresh food, but the store later closed.
"There was a lot of hope with the RDA and community that this would be sort of a saving grace, having an agency specifically focused on revitalization," remembered Councilwoman Tara Wicker.
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Wicker acknowledged the funding problems that have held back the RDA. But she said she's especially hopeful that the RDA will resume talks about renovating the historic Lincoln Theater in Old South Baton Rouge, which was discussed years ago.
Though Noland is excited about the projects the RDA has pursued, he acknowledges that by themselves, they are "woefully inadequate" in fixing blight throughout the city as a whole.
"You can drive around the neighborhoods of Baton Rouge, it would take about two hours, and it could persuade you that Baton Rouge needs an RDA badly," he said.