Maybe it’s difficult, after literally decades of John Noland’s wrestling with the tough problem of affordable housing in Baton Rouge, to pick just one of his pithy — and sometimes grumpy — observations. But this one was perfect, as he talked about the problems with neglected and nearly falling-down structures where our neighbors are living every day: “That wouldn’t pass a windshield inspection.”
Many of us don’t have much to do, or care much, about the more obscure functions of government, and that just about perfectly describes the tedious process of building inspection. It’s something that Baton Rouge has never done particularly well, and neglected neighborhoods show it. And if you’re not in real estate, it’s hard to understand why it is difficult to fix.
But a phrase like failing “windshield inspection” puts the issue into a realm that anybody can understand.
For Noland, stepping down at 73 as the volunteer head of Baton Rouge’s redevelopment authority, that one phrase also epitomized the way that he took on issues that others would not think about.
A successful businessman, impatient with the structural failings of government as much as he would be in his own companies, Noland would have found it much easier to write a check and move on with a more comfortable life. Falling-down houses, all too often occupied by single moms who couldn’t afford anywhere else to live, might have been left out of sight and mind.
Instead, he pushed, not just putting his money where his mouth was, but contributing something much more special: his time.
He was head of Build Baton Rouge, the renamed redevelopment authority, from its beginning. But his qualifications transcended his business acumen, also drawing on the credibility built by many years of toiling in the vineyards of housing and community redevelopment.
Noland pushed years ago the creation of a local outpost of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., LISC, to address the issues of blight that have afflicted parts of Baton Rouge for time out of mind. He was deeply involved with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s efforts to turn around what once was a failing downtown, but he also contributed to the birth of modern redevelopment plans in both Baton Rouge and post-Katrina New Orleans.
The RDA and now Build Baton Rouge made its mistakes: A lavish salary for Walter Monsour, its first executive head, damaged relationships in Mayor-President Kip Holden’s city hall. Noland’s persistence for long-term progress was not shared by political partners, who all too often shifted priorities with every new breeze in the Metro Council chamber. Funding flows became dependent on federal grants that eventually petered out, but on the plus side brought millions to the city-parish for redevelopment work.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has pushed for a new lease on the agency’s life under its president, Chris Tyson. Noland’s tenure on the board ends with the tentative award in May, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a major grant for the Ardendale project that will provide affordable and market-rate housing in the Florida Boulevard corridor. But the agency has also funded improvements across the city from Harding Boulevard south.
Many cities would be lucky to find a John Noland with the combination of means, leadership capacity and commitment to improving the lives of those less fortunate.
Kathleen Blanco: Even if she was telling you that your latest column was off base, it was hard to get mad at a politician who said so standing over her stove, cooking your supper that she was going to serve with her own hands. The late governor's charm and friendliness went a long way, but they may be lost arts in politics.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.