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Edgar Cage makes comments during discussion of a report from the Finance Department about the utilization of the Industrial Tax Exempt Program (ITEP) in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Already active in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes, Together Baton Rouge is further expanding its network of community-based activism to parishes on the west side of the Mississippi River.

Activists with the East Baton Rouge-based nonprofit who recently helped form Together Ascension are now taking a mentoring role with churches and grassroots organizations on the west side of the river who are seeking to put together a similar effort.

Those spearheading the fledgling organization are calling it "The Westside Sponsoring Committee" for now. The group will get a formal name once they can get enough community groups and local institutions to join, organizers said.

"We have close to 20 institutions from the westside right now," said Plaquemine resident Linda Johnson.

Johnson, a community activist in Plaquemine and member of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, is serving as one of the lead organizers in the effort.

"The majority of our membership right now is in the Plaquemine area," Johnson said. "We have three churches in West Baton Rouge that are a part of it, too. We haven't talked to anyone in Pointe Coupee Parish yet. We have to figure out, logistically, how to do it so we get the maximum amount of participation."

Johnson and Edgar Cage, a leader with the Together Baton Rouge, have hosted small meetings with various community leaders throughout the two parishes over the past few months. At a meeting in the city of St. Gabriel last week, the pair sat down with members from four different local groups that have been separately advocating on local issues in the east Iberville Parish city.

"I am encouraged and I am discouraged, too," Cage said of the recent meeting in St. Gabriel. "I'm encouraged because people are now willing to do something to create positive change. I'm discouraged by what I hear people have been putting up with."

The Plaquemine-based organizations were galvanized by frustrations over the region's traffic woes that make daily commutes across the river so difficult and voiced other concerns, Johnson said.

St. Gabriel residents spoke to Johnson and Cage about years-long fights at City Hall to block industrial growth near residential communities, long-standing sewer issues and future residential development that could potentially add to the city's flooding issues.

Should they be able to galvanize and build a strong coalition, Cage said, the westside group could join in Together Louisiana's current fight to block tax exemptions granted by local governing authorities to industrial corporations, which annually equates into multi-million dollar losses coffers of local school district, law enforcement and municipal agencies.

Like Ascension Parish, Iberville has a large industrial sector.

"Once the organization is created they'll become part of the statewide organization," Cage said. "The most important thing right now for them is to build those relationships so they can understand and trust each other."

St. Gabriel residents appear eager to jump on board. 

Thomas Miller, leader of the St. Gabriel Initiative, sees it as a great opportunity to reach across parish lines to address local, regional and statewide issues. 

"That is the only effective way to really address some of the issues, big and small, folks in Louisiana are facing," Miller said. "At the end of the day that's what we all want."

Reginald Grace, another resident who attended the meeting last week in St. Gabriel, sees creating a Together Baton Rouge-like organization on the westside as an opportunity to unite the community across racial and socioeconomic lines.

"We need a diverse group to attack these ideas," Grace said.

Tyrone Williams, lead organizer behind Citizens For a Better Saint Gabriel, is sure his group will participate as well but has concerns about how time consuming being involved could get. 

"This is like joining a church, once they get you in, there is going to be detailed involvement," he said. "I think we'll have to see how this evolves." 

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.