The Center for Planning Excellence, spun off from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is beginning the process of becoming a member-supported organization.

With federal earmarks a thing of the past and belt tightening at all levels of government, the local urban planning nonprofit has begun soliciting locally for companies and individuals to become members. Annual fees range from $100 for students and professionals under 25 to “Vision Members,” the top level of a three-tier structure that goes for $25,000.

“Now that we recognize that obtaining federal funding is unlikely, on a regular basis anyway, we have to look at other funding sources,” said Cordell Haymon, chairman of CPEX’s board.

CPEX will continue to fund itself with grant money and fee-for-service contracts for the planning work it does for municipalities throughout Louisiana, Haymon said.

Haymon said it is too early to measure the initial response, but the next couple months should give the nonprofit a sense of how the business community will respond.

“We’re really only at the beginning of that process,” he said.

CPEX’s 2011 budget is $2 million, though Haymon said what CPEX spends and is able to do will rise or fall to the level of funds it is able to bring in, just as it does now. Haymon said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of a dip in the first year of the transition.

“The level of our work will depend to a great extent on our funding,” he said, noting that the difficulty in predicting the results of the new funding model isn’t necessarily new.

“That kind of uncertainty just goes with this kind of enterprise,” he said.

CPEX’s sales pitch boils down to “If not us, who?”

Haymon noted that many people attending the recent Smart Growth Summit approached him and other CPEX officials to thank them for bringing experts to the city and stirring public debate on smart growth.

“Before CPEX, nobody did it and the results are the results you see today: the problems we have with our transportation system on every level, whether it’s traffic, transit … or the sprawl that we’ve created.”

He said CPEX is hoping Baton Rouge recognizes that embracing smart growth principles will make it more competitive in the battle for economic development and population growth. Those principles include complete streets designed for cars, bikes and pedestrians; public transportation; regional transit; energy-efficient design; and building within the city’s existing infrastructure footprint.

Haymon said CPEX will still get some funding from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, but that the foundation has only been a minor contributor since it spun off CPEX.

CPEX’s roots go back to the late 1990s, when the Baton Rouge Area Foundation created Plan Baton Rouge to steward the planning process for downtown. Plan Baton Rouge was funded with $150,000 each from the foundation, the city-parish and the state.

With continued funding from grants and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Plan Baton Rouge helped guide the implementation of the downtown plan and created another for Old South Baton Rouge, which it completed in the mid-2000s.

But it was after 2005’s hurricanes Katrina and Rita that the foundation decided to spin off Plan Baton Rouge to create CPEX as a free-standing nonprofit with its own board.

Funded by federal earmarks and money from the Louisiana Recovery Authority Foundation, CPEX spent the latter part of the last decade creating Louisiana Speaks, a post-Katrina plan for the Louisiana Gulf Coast. It also began planning initiatives in New Orleans and more than a dozen in smaller communities, such as Jena and Abbeville.