"In 2001,” recalls Davis Rhorer of the Downtown Development Authority, “we had zero hotel rooms in downtown.” It was shortly after that year that national consultants reported that Baton Rouge’s investment in meeting rooms, theater and arena — at what is now the Raising Cane’s River Center — needed hotel rooms in walking distance to be able to bring in meetings and events.
About 1,000 rooms was the recommendation. Over more than a decade, under mayor-presidents Bobby Simpson and Kip Holden, that goal was approached with significant private-sector investment in downtown. And on Monday, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome cut the ribbon on the formal opening of the Marriott Courtyard, bringing downtown to just over 1,000 rooms in the targeted area.
The $25 million investment by a Greenville, S.C., company — it early put a similar amount into the downtown Hampton Inn and Suites — put the area over the top on the Third and Florida space where the city’s first hotel, the Istrouma, was built in 1903.
“Downtown Baton Rouge continues to expand every day,” Broome said happily.
In this little event, years of planning and development were baked into the celebratory cake. In the original Plan Baton Rouge process, world-famous town planner Andres Duany pointed to the problem of surface parking lots. Poorly conceived building codes had condemned historic structures like the Istrouma during years of downtown’s decline.
Major new and reborn structures, from the Shaw Center to the old state office building redeveloped as the Watermark to storefronts and apartments, took a long time and some creative financing to achieve. The Courtyard ribbon-cutting may also mark the last time that a tax-increment financing device — allowing developers to use improved tax revenues for construction costs — is allowed for a hotel; after all, TIFs are for areas where development would not otherwise occur. A city administration and Metro Council needing new revenue would be rightly criticized for future TIFs in downtown.
The city-parish itself has been a relatively small player in downtown, financially. State government, under former Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen most prominently, pushed much of the progress there. That benefits the state over the long term financially, by owning and not renting space, but it made a huge difference in downtown on Day One, as offices were consolidated in downtown.
Still, Rhorer said that the DDA and city-parish government will be looking at ways to spruce up drab and utilitarian streets typical of downtown. He said they will be looking at more creative crosswalk designs or other improvements.
It is no time to stop improving downtown, which most visitors seek out when they come to Baton Rouge. From the Tsunami deck at the Shaw Center, the view is breathtaking. Restaurants that were old favorites a generation ago, like Poor Boy Lloyd’s, are part of the mix with foodie cuisine at Cocha, and on and on. “Feed Your Soul” is the state’s new tourism slogan but that is about more than food. The urban setting that makes any downtown into more than the sum of its parts is needed.
“There were a lot of naysayers who didn’t believe downtown could come back from the brink,” said Metro Council member Tara Wicker on Monday at the Courtyard event. They have been proved wrong.
Pat Mascarella: The priest who was a Spanish Town fixture died beloved by those he served at St. Joseph’s Cathedral and other churches, even in defiance of his lost eyesight. He was also an effective advocate for disabilities and never lost his intellectual curiosity. He will be missed.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.