Even the president of the United States is now tweeting out conspiracy theories. In some quarters, the conspiracy theory close to home is the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, pulling strings from its aerie on the top floor of the IBM building in downtown.
One of BRAF’s success stories in recent years was profiled in a national magazine recently and the story, while complimentary of the community foundation’s role, also shows its limitations — and those are never very helpful for a good conspiracy theory.
First, the success story.
With leadership from BRAF’s donors, underwriting expert studies and funding trips to San Antonio to look at the model, community leaders in politics and business persuaded voters to back a significant new addition to public safety in Baton Rouge.
The Bridge Center will be a nonprofit but backed by a parishwide 1.5-mill property tax. It will provide a place for law enforcement to deal with the many problems they have with victims of mental illness or substance abuse on the streets.
National analyst Otis White, writing in Governing magazine, profiled the Bridge Center process, and along the way noted the tons of other civic initiatives that have flowed from BRAF over the years.
Among them is the IBM building itself, part of the construction capabilities that BRAF has through its Commercial Properties real estate arm. The company was a major gift to the community from its creator, the late Wilbur Marvin.
For White, a lesson for other cities comes from BRAF’s long-term commitment to new ideas and initiatives. Every city needs “a kind of research and development arm for civic progress,” he wrote.
But he also showed how long it took for the Bridge Center to evolve, including an initial defeat at the polls in December 2016.
“It took two more years and massive citizen-engagement effort to get a different result” last December, White wrote.
Conspiracy theories are all the rage nowadays, and the idea of a downtown Establishment is an easy target. That is why, when White asked Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome about BRAF, she was complimentary but tellingly circumspect, “careful to add that the foundation doesn't dictate to local government; it collaborates. As she sees it, the city and the foundation are ‘co-creators’ of civic progress.”
Has a nice, safe ring to it. But her comment at once understates the role of BRAF for political reasons, and also underlines the main lesson that White meant to pass on to other cities in the country. That is that civic leadership is often dependent on a gifted public official, whose terms are inevitably limited, or community leaders who have a particular passion, whether it is libraries or symphonies or mental health treatment.
“In a lifetime, an extraordinary leader may take on one or two big civic projects before drifting out of civic work. When she leaves, her knowledge, skills and relationships leave with her,” White wrote.
That may be true in many places but the role of BRAF as a “reservoir” of civic betterment is unusual in public life and probably is envied in many cities in America.
At one time, deplorable as it may sound, there was real value in communities for the dozen or so powerful men — bankers or lawyers or tycoons — who could commune in the clubs and make a decision that would stick. Maybe it would be to mobilize the city to build a university — think Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh — or push segregationists to accept changes to Jim Crow laws to avoid a civil rights crisis, as in Atlanta in that time.
Decision-making in American cities is much different today, but it can also be diffuse, without the finality of the old power structure deciding something. Further, huge problems can’t be solved by Carnegies or Mellons, or Gates or Bloombergs. BRAF has a substantial endowment for a city Baton Rouge’s size, but it can spend annually only the earnings off that money.
It was donors’ money and policy commitment that was essential to BRAF’s success in developing the plan and overcoming the many obstacles to the Bridge Center. But it is taxpayers’ buy-in that makes the center possible. That requires a level of political savvy that is not always part of the assets of even a successful private entity. It takes a village, even for BRAF's extraordinary accomplishments. That should also be a lesson for other cities.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.