In recent months, you have come to hear the phrase “food desert” in describing part of north Baton Rouge.
Food deserts are generally defined as communities without fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods. They are usually found in impoverished areas. The result is usually a lot of fast-food joints selling processed, fatty foods that lead to obesity.
But areas like north Baton Rouge and old south Baton Rouge, where I grew up, are not just food deserts — there is a more insidious situation. They are economic deserts.
When New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson threatened to pull up stakes and make Louisiana a professional football desert, Louisiana’s government ponied up millions to keep him. According to a media report, the Saints have a deal that will provide them a total of $1.2 billion in state money through 2025, essentially for holding eight home games a year.
The state also forks over hundreds of thousands of dollars in assistance to the “Duck Dynasty” show, whose major theme is self-reliance, to help boost its profits.
If we are willing to do all of that, we need to spend more to improve our low-income neighborhoods. To truly be a great city, you have to include all of your citizens.
Contrary to common belief, poor communities are made up mostly of taxpayers who pay their annual state and federal taxes, but they also pay taxes on food, gas, clothes and other services.
The local Rouge Collection magazine recently suggested the creation of a North Baton Rouge Development District, similar to the Downtown Development District. I agree.
Nearly 30 years ago, when city and state leaders decided they needed to make the downtown area better, they started the Downtown Development District and have undergirded it with millions of dollars since then.
After early stumbles, there has been a renaissance downtown thanks to the help of the district. Now it is debatable that the district actually made all of it happen. Some of it was inevitable as wise businesspeople and an evolution of young entrepreneurs sought investment opportunities.
A North Baton Rouge Development District could seek state and federal funding to bring change to Scotlandville, the Lake, the Park, along with the Bottom and the Thomas H. Delpit Drive areas of the city.
City leaders should fully support and develop such an idea and ignore the naysayers who would rather write off these areas.
There is another part of the bargain. Community leaders, churches, business leaders and the citizens of those areas must do their share. There is no incentive for investors to bring brick and mortar to areas that are considered high crime and, frankly, the median income is not high. The drive for businesspeople is to make a profit.
That’s where the entire city has to be involved. These areas will need better everything, such as street lighting, sidewalks, increased policing, financial incentives for businesses willing to locate, an area business think tank and a willingness by local government to stay the course.
Agencies, including the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the NAACP, 100 Black Men, Southern University, LSU, Baton Rouge Community College, city-parish government, BREC and law enforcement, need to be involved and committed.
New grocery stores aside, these areas also need new car dealerships, a small community shopping center/mall, movie theater, a Clerk of Court’s Office branch, a job training office, more elderly housing units and a teen-parenting center that teaches life and employment skills.
Middle and high schools, in the affected areas, must teach entrepreneurship classes and how those skills can work where they live.
Our city leaders and the affected communities must know that change will take years, but you have start somewhere. The Downtown Development District has benefited from tax dollars and commitment since its early days.
Imagine Baton Rouge’s national image in 10 years.
In his book, “The Little Black Book of Economic Development,” Don Allen Holbrook wrote: “World-class communities come in all shapes and sizes; they are not determined by geography and/or natural resources so much as by the mindset of their local leadership.”
Ed Pratt can be reached at email@example.com.