West Baton Rouge Parish leaders have embraced a new plan for development they hope will improve the daily lives of residents across the river from Louisiana’s capital city while also easing traffic snarls that bedevil the parish.
The plan, which was recently adopted by the West Baton Rouge Parish Council, focuses on steps to attract more of the types of retail and commercial establishments that parish residents currently have to cross the Mississippi River bridge to access in East Baton Rouge Parish.
"This is a sign of the West Baton Rouge Chamber and the Parish Council's commitment to adding retail and restaurants offerings to the parish," said Jamie Hanks, executive director of the parish's Chamber of Commerce. "This will be used in a lot of decision making as we move forward."
Introducing new commercial and retail businesses into the parish has been a priority for leaders, but has taken the backseat in recent years as elected officials have concentrated their attention on the parish's ever-growing traffic issues.
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But as the new retail plan points out, drawing more retail stories into West Baton Rouge could put dents in the daily back ups along the Mississippi River bridge, which occur at least in part because residents must trek into East Baton Rouge and adjoining parishes in the region if they want to buy things they can't in West Baton Rouge.
"What surprised me most was the amount of data in the report showing where our dollars are going and how we're losing dollars across the river," said Kevin Durbin, the parish's planning director.
According to the report, the top retail sectors where the parish loses potential sales tax revenue to residents traveling out of West Baton Rouge to make purchases are florists, electronics and appliances, books and music stores, E-commerce headquarters, office supplies, clothing, jewelry, luggage and leather, auto dealers, and full service restaurants.
The report also highlights several retail areas it says are oversaturated in the parish. These include fast food restaurants, bars, gas stations, establishments that primarily sell retail merchandise through vending machines and stores that sell alcoholic beverages, lawn and garden equipment and specialty foods.
The plan points out that the biggest retail potential for the parish is along the La. 1 and Interstate-10 corridor, but notes that is most attractive to industrial rather than commercial development since most of the undeveloped land along the thoroughfares are easily accessible to railroad, the Mississippi River, pipelines and the highways.
And because about 44 percent of the parish's undeveloped land is either agricultural or wetlands, the report notes, it will be a challenge for parish leaders to find plausible areas on which to develop large scale retail centers similar to the Bass Pro Shop and Juban Crossing in Livingston Parish.
The housing boom West Baton Rouge Parish has experienced over the past few years is showing no signs of slowing any time soon.
Going forward, the plan says parish leaders should complete nine action items that could help them reach their goals when it comes to bringing in new retail business establishments.
Among the suggestions are: Creating special zoning districts to encourage retail development; establishing a subcommittee of Chamber and parish officials that will exclusively focus on retail development; developing tax-increment financing options to give developers more more of an incentive to locate West Baton Rouge; and providing other public assistance plans for identified retail priorities, with a particular focus on redeveloping some current retail spaces that have fallen into a dilapidated condition.
The redevelopment suggestion appealed most to Parish Councilman Barry Hugghins.
"We can't just keep taking up green space," he said when the plan was presented to the Parish Council last week. "We've got to do what it takes...to start making some of these rundown areas vibrant again."