How to turn around the economy in north Baton Rouge? There’s a looming conflict between first principles of economics and first principles of politics.
In an election year, guess which one is winning?
Maybe it does not narrow it down to say “the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council meeting that dissolved into chaos,” but it was the meeting about approval of a land-use map for the hospital district around the city’s largest health care providers and LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center that showed the problems of short-term politics getting in the way of solutions that take time.
The agenda item was hijacked by criticisms from the floor about the lack of health care in north Baton Rouge. A hospital (the old Earl K. Long) and a Mid City emergency room have recently closed; alternatives to those decades-old institutions will take years to develop, just as expanding the “health district” around Essen Lane will also take years to expand offerings for medical care in the region, far beyond the Baton Rouge city limits.
More immediately, the “tale of two cities” narrative — about more affluent neighborhoods south of Florida Boulevard and the poorer areas to the north — bids fair to become an election issue.
If it does, voters deserve more than politicians pathetically embracing whatever agitation appears before them, as the Metro Council does on many Wednesday afternoons.
Voters, particularly those in the poorer neighborhoods, want and need both the short-term delivery of basic city services and a long-term commitment to attention on their areas.
Economic growth is about businesses making money, but in today’s city hall, the attention of officials and politicians is directed by the enthusiasm of real estate interests for development in more affluent areas. There is vast business potential north of Florida if government gets the basics right, such as crime prevention and housing development. More attention to the northern neighborhoods is not a bad strategy, but it’s not something that is amenable to short-term thinking.
The good news is that there is a great deal more that constitutes “economic development” than the slapdash handing out of tax breaks to developers, one of the few business interests that actually exercises influence on what happens in city hall.
The bad news is that economic growth and redevelopment takes a long time, well past the November and December elections that will bring Baton Rouge a new mayor-president and Metro Council.
Look at the donation in late 2013 by Entergy of a site along the railroad tracks at Government Street. The tract has great potential because of the structures there — industrial chic is now almost an architectural and development genre — but it’s taking years to deal with the issues involved in making the area a business and residential center.
A city-parish Redevelopment Authority is running out of its initial tranches of money, just as the Entergy project and others on its plate come to critical points. The RDA got a bad name from an exorbitant salary paid to its first president, Walter Monsour, who then fell out with Mayor-President Kip Holden politically.
Not the recipe for the long-term process of redevelopment, and all too illustrative of how not to approach the problem.
Success for the Entergy tract alone would be a huge win for a poorer neighborhood, but it depends on city hall funding the RDA, a basic function in many cities.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.