Editor’s note: Today The Advocate’s Commentary page begins a column by Lanny Keller that will appear on Wednesdays. Keller’s column will focus on politics and public policy in the Baton Rouge area, with occasional commentary on issues in the wider region and state government. Keller has been an award-winning editorial writer for The Advocate since 1998.
Over the years, he has written for many Louisiana newspapers covering state politics. He also served in state and federal government positions, including in Baton Rouge for Gov. David C. Treen in 1982-84. He is a journalism graduate of LSU.
Pick your dog in this fight: an ingrate mayor who snarls in public against the agency created by one of his oldest friends and most important supporters or the longtime city hall insider who demands of the ingrate mayor a cool $3 million for his agency, which helps pay the insider’s lavish salary.
No one comes off well in this spat between Kip Holden and Walter Monsour.
What is worse is that the quarrel gets in the way of the city, one way or another, providing reliable funding to an agency that it needs.
The $3 million question: whether to pay for the operating costs of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, which is on track to run out of money by early 2016.
So far, it’s been funded mostly by one-time federal and private grants. “Everything we have looked at shows you need a dedicated money stream to allow redevelopment authorities to continue programs,” Monsour said in the ex cathedra tone honed by years as an imperious chief administrative officer for Holden.
It is Monsour’s sheer capacity of managing city hall and the Metro Council that helped make Holden successful, but the mayor is now looking at running for lieutenant governor. Not only is getting $3 million out of the budget and the Metro Council an invitation to a shellacking, but it looks bad for No. 1.
“I can get out and hustle things for Baton Rouge,” Holden told The Advocate’s Timothy Boone. “Why can’t Walter Monsour get things to fill his gap? … I can give him a class on how to hustle money, but you can’t do it from behind a desk.”
An underlying problem is the politics of the money. Monsour’s base salary — not including perks — is $265,000 a year. That hurts politically; Metro Council members are not immune to envy, and perhaps are more susceptible than most.
Another problem is that what the RDA does is relatively obscure. It is in some ways a development middleman, assembling inner-city property for redevelopment and packaging private or local funds with federal grants.
Monsour’s RDA generated $60 million in 2009 from the New Market Tax Credits program for various projects and is now working two big redevelopment plans: the Ardendale mixed-use development, northeast of Baton Rouge Community College near Florida Boulevard, and the old Entergy site at 1509 Government St.
The 200 acres of Ardendale property have been valued at $12 million. The state has allocated $36.5 million for two BRCC classroom buildings that will begin construction in early 2015, and the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board plans to build a $17 million career academy on the site.
Meanwhile, developers have reportedly expressed interest in the Entergy property, which is valued at $2 million. RDA has asked famous planner Andres Duany to mastermind its revitalization.
These are the kind of projects that have many moving parts, and a middleman is not only a good thing but an essential thing. Development of sensitive areas in the center of a city is not the same as giving a developer carte blanche in greenfield properties.
Cities across the country have funded versions of the RDA to revitalize old industrial properties (Pittsburgh) or demolished neighborhoods (New Orleans). And if East Baton Rouge Parish has growth prospects, it is in filling in the city’s neighborhoods as an alternative to suburban commutes.
The prospects for RDA survival, much less success, are diminished by a civil war in Kipdom.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.