Three years after North Baton Rouge voters raised taxes to support an economic development agency focused on the needs of that community, it appears poised to tackle the work in earnest.

Jerry Jones, appointed executive director of the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District late last year, has hit the ground running, amending the district's mission statement and goals and working on putting together a comprehensive plan for the district.

He's partnering with organizations throughout the parish to spur small-business growth while working to build stronger relationships between the district and both Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College. The objective is to help existing businesses expand and create jobs for people in the community.

It's been a slow process getting to this point, though.

There was a burst of energy in 2016 when activists mobilized to secure an emergency room to replace what was lost with the closing of Earl K. Long Medical Center that had served that part of town.

The momentum continued as the community later approved a 2 percent hotel tax to fund the economic district created to spearhead future growth, then seemed to stall.

Bill Pizzolato, the co-owner of Tony's Seafood and board member of the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District, recognizes that it's been a slow process. He said it's going to take some time before the public sees a turnaround in the economically depressed area where his family has operated a successful business for more than 60 years.

"I look at what happened downtown. That took 10 to 15 years to come alive again," he said. Redeveloping north Baton Rouge, especially along Plank Road, "is going to take a lot of time and planning."

As part of its effort to jump-start economic development  efforts in north Baton Rouge, the group Jones now leads is hosting a series of panel discussions and events focused on the community's needs.

A recently launched campaign targeting blight and boosting commerce along Plank Road by East Baton Rouge Parish's Redevelopment Authority is also turning the spotlight back toward north Baton Rouge. 

It's an area that has undergone great change over the years.

When Pizzolato and his family started their business ventures in north Baton Rouge, the community was populated mostly by middle to upper-middle income white families employed at the nearby Exxon chemical plant, and Plank Road was one of the city's thriving commercial corridors. 

Today the area is majority black with mostly low- to moderate-income households. The area is also riddled with blight in many of its commercial and residential pockets. 

"Over time people moved to different locations in the parish and with that, things changed," Pizzolato said. 

Fellow board member Gary Chambers said the community is suffering from two decades of white flight and disinvestment from the city-parish's public and business sector. 

Chambers and others on the board of the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District point out that the success of Baton Rouge's Downtown Development District was boosted by the advocacy of former mayor Kip Holden.

They say Holden's focus on downtown aided in the adoption of policies and incentives that made redevelopment for the city-parish's central business district attractive, and profitable, to developers. 

Tax-increment financing districts, which return sales tax revenues back to businesses to reduce construction debts, supported the entrance of new hotels downtown. 

The Metro Council in 2016 created the North Baton Rouge Economic Opportunity Zone, a program aimed at boosting private investment in low-income areas through federal tax incentives. 

Since its implementation, though, there have been only three applications for developments within the approved zone, according to annual reports from the city-parish Office of Planning Commission. The first was in December 2016 and two more were filed in December 2018. 

Chambers said current Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome needs to step up and be visible and vocal about bettering the landscape and quality of life in north Baton Rouge the way Holden was for downtown.  

"I think it's time for Broome to deliver," Chambers said. "We're coming up on an election year, and voters will be looking around to see what has changed since Kip left office."

Board Chairwoman Jacqueline Mims said the "us vs. them" mentality that tends to pepper so many topics and hot-button discussions in the parish also works against their efforts. 

She referenced an excursion to study the successful redevelopment efforts in Austin, Texas, where she said that city embraced its minority and under-served population in a way that's not happening in East Baton Rouge Parish. 

"They realized in order for the entire city to grow, you couldn't leave out any segment of the community," Mims said. "That's the missing piece in Baton Rouge: Segments of the community, like ours, have been left out. The Baton Rouge North Economic Development District can't do this alone. We have to work in tandem … with other entities." 

For the first three years of its creation, the district operated without a real leader.

The district's board, which has experienced some turnover among members, was finally able to agree on who to hire as its first executive director in November, Until then, the district had been operating with an interim director. 

"They were trying to figure out how to stabilize the board's structure with limited resources," said Brian LaFleur, who became vice chairman in October. 

It took approximately six months before the district started receiving tax revenue from the 2 percent hotel tax, which generates about $200,000 annually. Board members pinpointed $500,000 as a more-desired annual funding mark, an amount the DDD receives each year through tax revenue and supplemental funding from the city-parish.      

"When it got to point revenue started coming in from the sales tax, we were able to stabilize and bring on a permanent executive director," LaFleur said. "As it stands now, we're geared up into growing our abilities to touch all businesses and constituents that live and work in north Baton Rouge." 

The development district has invited an array of state and local officials to panel discussions this week on topics surrounding transportation and economic development, education and defining Southern University's impact on the area. 

"The district has re-adjusted itself," Jones said. "Our goal is for the district to speak with one voice." 

RDA, meanwhile, has used more than $200,000 in-kind donations in addition to $100,000 in grant funding to develop the comprehensive plan for the Plank Road revitalization. That study will pinpoint redevelopment along a four-mile radius along Plank Road from the intersection of 22nd Street to Harding Boulevard. 

"We ensuring that we are developing the corridor in a way that creates opportunity for new store fronts and business activity," said RDA President and CEO Chris Tyson. "We're also doing a land banking of vacant and adjudicated parcels to aid in development opportunities."

According to previous reports, the goal is to redevelop the land along Plank Road for commercial or residential use to fit in with plans to set up a $40 million to $50 million express bus route between LSU and north Baton Rouge.

"As RDA is doing its master plan for Plank Road, the district has is starting to look at how to add incentives and layer incentives on top of Plank Road because the corridor is part of our retail study area," Jones said. "With the help of the board, RDA, our colleagues at (the Baton Rouge Area Chamber), I see a real opportunity for the community to grow. We just need to prepare our toolbox in order to help everyone grow in the same direction." 


Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.