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Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, center standing, talks during the DDD's trolley tour to point out all of the things under construction and in the works for downtown Baton Rouge. 

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

When Davis Rhorer started the Downtown Development District in 1987, there were probably meetings at which the commissioners on the board outnumbered civilians in the audience. No longer.

The meetings are now well-attended, with developers and business people, downtown residents and boosters of the downtown area.

At the 30-year mark, Rhorer’s presentation to the Press Club of Baton Rouge was a barrage of PowerPoint slides and photographs of multimillion-dollar projects, private sector developments that have brought thousands of residents to the downtown core and vastly expanded the tax base for the city-parish, schools and other bodies.

When the DDD started, any one of the projects Rhorer zoomed through would have been worth an hour’s meeting of the district board.

The changed nature of downtown is now considered a model for redeveloping neglected parts of Baton Rouge, but the facts on the ground will be very different. The difference is not just a matter of suburban landscapes and long-ago retail areas like Old South Baton Rouge being less dense and requiring different interventions than an urban core. It is more costly, too.

Rhorer noted the DDD’s years of not only studies and long hours of community meetings and engagement, but a lot of creative financing; precious little city-parish investment went in downtown, unless it was leveraged by big state investments in the terms of Gov. Mike Foster, or other investors like the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

The game-changing Shaw Center for the Arts, for example, was funded by the state, LSU and private donors. The development got a small city-parish investment for landscaping only after two votes and much lobbying of the Metro Council.

Every advance in downtown was, in turn, the target of captious criticism. Nobody would ever go out to eat there. No one is safe there. No one will live there.

All have been proved wrong.

It would be rash indeed to believe that Baton Rouge’s native negativity will not be turned on future projects, particularly as there is less to immediately work on in spread-out areas.

The notion that there is a magic spigot of money for community revitalization is also unrealistic. The downtown area is a big tax contributor, particularly per square foot; any suburban area requires much more spread-out infrastructure, roads and sewers and sidewalks and the like. That is inherently more expensive.

Downtown's successive plans were often dismissed as just paper, when in fact layers of professional planning are needed to qualify for federal funding or other grants. Nor will those plans necessarily be exciting as that led by world-renowned designer Andres Duany for Plan Baton Rouge, the downtown master plan in 1998 that inspired many and thus imposed a political cost to those opposing downtown redevelopment.

What would-be emulators of the DDD should anticipate is that criticism will come. In fact, with the closely divided political landscape — Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome was elected by 52 percent last fall, the Metro Council is often sharply divided — the prospect of criticism is greater.

Above all, downtown has been 30 years in progress, and it is far from finished and critical infrastructure investments — like the much-debated streetcar along Nicholson Drive — remain only plans at this point. Rhorer also plugged a hotel-motel tax increase on the Nov. 18 ballot, for renovation of the Raising Cane's River Center arena. "It is absolutely imperative that the River Center remains competitive," Rhorer said.

Rhorer emphasized the DDD’s relentless efforts to partner with property owners, developers, urban pioneers in Spanishtown and Beauregard Town. That kind of painstaking process is going to be fundamental to other areas, but a downtown core typically comes with those folks built in; in parts of north Baton Rouge, the long-term redevelopment of community spirit is at least as important as buildings and sidewalks.

A more sensible agenda is to work outward from the DDD core, as the Redevelopment Authority and private entrepreneurs are trying to do with the old Entergy property and storefronts along Government Street. Communities are built on residents and assets, physical and historical. Tying existing redevelopment and property potential is going to be a straighter path toward redevelopment, however far it might seem from Wyandotte or Gus Young.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

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