East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker calls Florida Boulevard the “Mason-Dixon line” of the parish . The mother of five, who has lived near that borderline her entire life and represents much of north Baton Rouge on the council, said she hopes she lives to see the day when somebody can cross over Florida and not even realize it because the two regions won’t look so starkly dissimilar.
That’s not the case today.
North of Florida Boulevard, in the city limits of Baton Rouge, business openings lag dramatically behind the rest of the parish. A hospital and an emergency room have closed. Cortana Mall is half-empty. Residential neighborhoods are mostly lined with steep ditches instead of sidewalks.
On the south side of the parish, downtown is in the midst of a Renaissance, with new restaurants and businesses being announced by the week. Hospitals are thriving, with a new children’s hospital breaking ground near an already booming medical area. Luxury movie theaters are popping up, and the Mall of Louisiana continues to attract popular retail chains on the sprawling campus.
Recently, Wicker was heartbroken to learn that a dollar store chain was going to pass on a new location in a north Baton Rouge neighborhood because of crime concerns. It’s often she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of vying for the attention of any businesses, even fast-food chains and dollar stores that aren’t typically considered favorable development in higher-end locations.
“You’ll have suburban communities that are like, ‘Please, no. We don’t want that,’ ” Wicker said. “But we’re over here like, ‘Yes, please. Come on over.’ ”
North Baton Rouge business development is behind, to say the least. From 2005 to 2013, there was a net gain of only 13 businesses, excluding sole proprietorships, in the ZIP codes of 70802, 70805 and 70807, which roughly correspond with the heart of the area near Interstate 110, according to data compiled by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. Across the whole parish, East Baton Rouge gained 385 additional businesses with paid employees during this time.
Residents in this north Baton Rouge area say they’re fed up with having to travel to shop for groceries, buy clothes, see a movie and get medical care. They feel ignored by their leaders, as they watch local officials offer generous incentives and build expensive infrastructure in other parts of the parish to improve quality of life and promote economic development.
The issue has turned political, as residents have started pointing fingers at their elected leaders — and leaders are pointing fingers at each other— over who is to blame for the allowing the dearth of opportunity to linger for so long without proposing a remedy.
“There’s a great disparity between north Baton Rouge and south Baton Rouge,” said Shedonna Martin, a mother of two in the area, who drives to Mid City to both work and shop. “It’s two different worlds within one.”
Depending on whom you ask, the boundaries of what make up “north Baton Rouge” vary. But generally speaking, people are referring to the lower-income, higher-crime area north of Florida Boulevard and south of the city of Baker, a large section of the city that has a higher density of black residents than much of the rest of the parish. A recent proposed economic development district targeted by Councilman John Delgado defines it as everything north of Florida Boulevard within the city limits of Baton Rouge. This swath of territory is home to about 100,000 people, almost a quarter of the total parish population. It also includes Southern University, where about half of the undergraduates within the more than 6,300 student population live on campus.
Southern students and administrators say the lack of development affects their student outreach, recruiting, overall campus well-being and more.
Senior Dominique Diamond said it’s frustrating to have to drive 30 minutes across Baton Rouge to LSU, the other college campus in the city, for entertainment and restaurants. The offerings around Southern’s campus are few and lackluster in comparison, he said.
“We’re always coming to south Baton Rouge, around LSU, or we’re going to College Drive to go to nice places,” Diamond said. “Everything is booming over there. You have TJ Ribs. You have Buffalo Wild Wings. You have Insomnia cookies. You have Five Guys. You have little daiquiri shops.”
In south Baton Rouge and downtown, local and state government have given certain businesses millions of dollars of tax credits and tax breaks to relocate and expand. That happens far less often in north Baton Rouge, aside from the industrial corridor.
Tax increment financing districts, which give sales taxes back to businesses to pay down construction debt, have become one of the most popular recruitment tools for local governments. Out of nine TIFs approved by the Metro Council since 2005, which have rebated millions in tax dollars over the past decade, none have gone to north Baton Rouge. The majority have supported hotels downtown, such the Capitol House Hilton, which keeps about $900,000 in taxes a year, but other TIFS have been approved to support a planned entertainment district on the Mississippi River front, a hotel on Bluebonnet Boulevard and a Costco.
While north Baton Rouge residents decry a lack of healthy food options, the city-parish crafted an economic development district to lure Costco to a spot that is only a five-minute drive from the Baton Rouge Country Club. The city-parish offered the grocer $7 million in tax rebates to pay for necessary road improvements and demolition costs.
At the state level, tax incentives called enterprise zones are intended to benefit economically depressed areas like north Baton Rouge. While the actual designated zones are mostly in north Baton Rouge and within Baton Rouge city limits, the vast majority of the tax credits were awarded to businesses in south Baton Rouge because of a provision that allows the credits to go to businesses that hire a set percentage of people from low-income areas. From 2008 to 2013, only 21 of the 135 businesses that received Enterprise Zone tax credits in the parish were in north Baton Rouge. In south Baton Rouge, retail businesses in the Perkins Rowe development, including Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Fresh Market, received tax credits.
Richard Preis, the developer of the 200-acre Howell Place project on Harding Boulevard, said north Baton Rouge should be attractive to business owners. It has Southern University, the Baton Rouge Metro Airport and some of the largest industrial plants in the country.
Preis said he wanted to develop Howell Place and provide hotels near the airport to attract business vendors who fly in to meet with ExxonMobil and other petrochemical companies.
“I got no incentives, no tax rebates, nothing,” he said. “I couldn’t get the attention of the political world at that time.”
Preis has developed Howell Place for more than a decade, and it’s still only a bit more than half occupied. It has three hotels, a surgical hospital, a gas station and a few chain restaurants.
Even today, he said, north Baton Rouge leaders aren’t fighting hard enough to revive the area, which he believes is teeming with demand. He noted that the loss of the Earl K. Long Medical Center, the public hospital closed in 2013, sent a terrible message to businesses and developers about the government’s commitment to the area.
“Someone should have fought the fight to keep medical in the northern part of the parish, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “Is there a lack of vision for the underdeveloped areas in Baton Rouge? Yes. The next Richard Preis shouldn’t have to go through what I went through.”
While economic development is largely determined by the market and private development, critics say government agencies aren’t equitably investing in infrastructure and amenities in the neediest neighborhoods.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden has touted recent sidewalk and road improvements in north Baton Rouge as that criticism has grown. According to the comprehensive $850 million Green Light Plan, which includes 36 road improvement projects across the parish, about six are in north Baton Rouge, amounting to about $42 million — or 5 percent — of the total funding for named projects.
City-parish officials have said the projects were prioritized by how effectively they would improve traffic, an effort primarily centered around creating a north-south corridor from Central to southeast Baton Rouge.
As with roads, the parks and recreation department has come under fire for recent attempts to pull services.
BREC plans to spend $19.8 million in capital improvements to community parks over the next 10 years. Of that money, a sizable 28 percent will go toward parks in north Baton Rouge, including Anna T. Jordan, Greenwood, Howell and North Sherwood Forest.
But it’s not just how BREC allocates its money that frustrates people in north Baton Rouge.
In the past year, BREC has closed or announced plans to close a swimming pool and a golf course in north Baton Rouge. BREC officials also have started a conversation about moving the Baton Rouge Zoo from Thomas Road near Baker to elsewhere in the city-parish.
“Do they have to take everything?” said Albert Samuels, Southern University’s dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Isn’t it enough that you have the Mall of Louisiana, you have Perkins Rowe? Do you have to take the zoo too?”
But BREC officials defend their decisions. For example, they’ve said the Gus Young pool was closed because it outlived its lifespan and wasn’t being used by enough people.
BREC hopes to start construction by early next year on a trail that will loop around Greenwood Park in north Baton Rouge, connecting the park to nearby neighborhoods. They also plan to revive old trails on the Scotlandville Parkway and eventually connect them to downtown. BREC leaders said the trails could become economic drivers for north Baton Rouge.
“These trails could have tremendous economic impact from a tourism standpoint, from a quality-of-life standpoint,” said Ted Jack, BREC’s assistant superintendent for planning, operations and resources.
Four years ago, ahead of the East Baton Rouge Parish mayor-president’s election, Holden’s biggest opposition came from a faction of Republicans capitalizing on the perception that the city-parish had spent too much time downtown and neglected the suburban south part of the parish.
Now, with 9 months until the next election, the political dialogue has shifted north. Candidates on both sides already are vying for black votes, including those from north Baton Rouge.
Holden, whose third and final mayoral term expires at the end of the year, lives in Scotlandville and has taken heat in recent months about his record in his own backyard.
In November, Holden, seeking the lieutenant governor seat, was asked at a debate forum about the disparity between north and south Baton Rouge. Holden responded that businesses locating anywhere in the parish are providing job opportunities equally to people in north and south Baton Rouge.
Pushed by north Baton Rouge advocate Gary Chambers on the issue, Holden said plainly: “You don’t have the investors who are investing in this community, and I’m telling you that straight up.”
Holden declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he didn’t want get into a back and forth dialogue about his comments to Chambers.
Chauna Banks-Daniel, a north Baton Rouge councilwoman, took umbrage with Holden’s comments.
“The question in essence addresses the lack of effort by this administration, not the response of developers,” she said in an email. “In reality, none of the movers and shakers have dedicated any funds towards stimulating economic development in the northern part of Baton Rouge.”
Tyronn Thomas, who has lived in north Baton Rouge for 30 years, blames both the council and the mayor.
“They can go try to get a $100 million trolley for downtown and LSU but nothing from Government Street to Southern University,” Thomas said. “The mayor can go out to O’Neal Lane and spend $3 million on a contract to widen O’Neal Lane, but we can’t even get our streets repaved.”
Southern’s Samuels called it “a fair question to ask” about whether the blame for the problems in north Baton Rouge should be placed on its political leaders. He said Holden’s election as the parish’s first black mayor-president was important symbolically to show black children they can aspire to similar positions.
“But after 12 years, and going through an election cycle, I don’t think that people are wrong to ask the question that, ‘Is it good enough just to have people in high positions who look like them? Or do we have the right to actually expect some results?’ ” Samuels said. “That also puts the responsibility on the people. ... We sometimes get the government that we deserve.”
So what efforts are targeted at reviving north Baton Rouge?
Most of the investments in the area have started with housing — creating affordable housing options and improving blighted areas. Metro Council members often take a special interest in getting blighted properties cleaned up and abandoned buildings demolished. The city-parish also has worked to turn problem properties over to groups like Habitat for Humanity.
Wicker, the councilwoman, said it’s important to get the housing stock in order to draw people back to the area and make it presentable so businesses feel comfortable moving there.
In 2007, the state and city-parish created the Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, a group whose mission is to revive blighted areas. The agency is floundering, something its officials blame on insufficient recurring funds.
Gwen Hamilton, the interim CEO of the agency, said she thinks a fully-funded RDA could make a significant impact in north Baton Rouge.
“I think this is why we were created. That’s our role,” Hamilton said. “None of this can be done alone, but we can help make it more attractive, work with private investors, create the appropriate incentives.”
The RDA has planned several improvement projects in various low-income areas in north Baton Rouge, but those have stalled because of the money gap. But the agency, with the help of other community partners, is moving forward with its Ardendale project, a mixed-use development that will feature educational facilities, housing and retail near Florida Boulevard. Hamilton said the project could be a catalyst for more development in the area.
While the recent announcement about the closure of Macy’s at the Cortana Mall was a new blow, its owners have called the move “an opportunity to re-evaluate.” Outside experts have suggested the mall owners could move in other directions, such as luring office tenants.
Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which receives annual stipends of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city-parish, said his agency isn’t focused on specific locations when recruiting business.
“Our charge is to drive economic development into East Baton Rouge Parish across the entire parish,” Knapp said. “In doing so, we look without the lens of one community or another. Because those jobs will ultimately be available to all citizens in the community.”
Knapp pointed out that not all the economic news out of north Baton Rouge is bad, noting that there was a 51 percent increase in payroll over the decade before 2013 in the 70805 zipcode — a zipcode completely located in the area and the home of the Exxon refinery.
Most of the ideas to foster growth in north Baton Rouge center on creating an organization like the Downtown Development District to agitate for change and promote the area. State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, noted that in the past such efforts didn’t get traction, particularly in identifying a funding mechanism for such an entity.
Barrow said she plans to bring the idea back in the upcoming regular legislative session. At the same time, the Metro Council could move forward with its own initiative, perhaps a special taxing district floated by Councilman Delgado that would allow developers to maintain low property taxes in exchange for their business.
At a recent town hall meeting, Banks-Daniel announced another proposal, the creation of a north Baton Rouge policy commission, in which concerned residents would come up with ideas for the betterment of their community.
A year and a half ago, Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit of community organizers, rose to the challenge of trying to attract more grocery stores to the area, as some neighborhoods lack easy access to fresh food. Group members say they also will soon present a plan to rebuild access to health care in that part of the city.
On the grocery project, the group is working with the city-parish to hire a specialist who will oversee site selection, craft business incentives and recruit businesses. Broderick Bagert, a Together Baton Rouge organizer, said they have a verbal commitment from the Mayor’s Office to help fund business incentives for a grocery store but nothing specific yet.
The group says it is filling a void in government to help serve the most needy people in the parish.
“Economic development follows where there’s organization, and our leaders have yet to organize around north Baton Rouge,” Bagert said.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @Aegallo. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.