Go back a few decades, and Baton Rouge might well have been seen less as a city than a collection of villages. There was Esso, the refinery and petrochemical complex that boomed in the middle part of the 20th century; LSU and its professors and staff; the State Capitol and its bureaucratic payroll. People worked in each silo, and the villages often seemed quite distant from each other, even if formally connected.
Obviously, that leaves out big parts of the communities around the Red Stick bluffs, including Southern University’s campus and Scotlandville, the farming and ranching and dairy that filled the countryside.
But the big employment base was the top three, and a large part of the economy of the metropolitan area, not just East Baton Rouge Parish, continues to be based on those assets.
As a longtime state legislator, new Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome is aware of the impact of the state budget crisis on her city, in terms of state services curtailed and fewer state jobs, as well as investment in downtown, the center of the State Capitol village.
Broome benefits from a generally good economic environment, in large part because low natural gas prices are feeding expansion of the petrochemical industry.
But the universities are in trouble, even as there is a greater need for a knowledge-based economic strategy to diversify from the existing petrochemical industry.
A panel of chancellors and presidents talked to the Broome transition team focused on the economy, and a lot of their news was about cuts.
“We’ll never go back to the day of lavish state support,” said Southern President Ray Belton, and LSU President F. King Alexander lamented the lack of “stable budgets from the state.”
That’s not directly in Broome’s control, but it certainly is an economic problem: “One of our biggest challenges is recruiting talent,” said businesswoman Deborah Roth, a transition team member.
Alexander agreed. “We lost 27 assistant professors last year,” he said.
It’s hardly bad news that Baton Rouge continues to benefit from public campuses, including the growing Baton Rouge Community College, and the private Our Lady of the Lake College, now renamed Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University.
LSU is, of course, the biggest economic contributor: Despite budget travails, Alexander noted that the main campus still succeeds in bring $200 million a year in grants and research payrolls into the local economy.
But what can the city-parish government actually do? Alexander bluntly offered, “city planning.”
He said that the Burbank and Nicholson corridor, now expanding with apartment complexes and other development, is disrupting traffic patterns and making the campus environs harder to navigate and less safe.
“There is no plan for a bike path,” he said. “We don’t even get a heads-up that these new complexes are going up.”
“Who’s planning this?” Alexander added. “Where are we, when they are planning this?”
There is a technical political term for Alexander’s comments: a can of worms.
His questions reach beyond the agenda of that particular transition committee. In a world where talent is precious and quality of life and economic opportunity are so closely mixed, how does Baton Rouge’s city government contribute to the assets that constitute so much of its current and future employment base?
City-parish government is struggling, even with the nudging of outside experts like the Center for Planning Excellence, to bring smart-growth concepts into day-to-day operations. Planning director Frank Duke is helping to lead a rewrite of city codes and drive better decisions about land use.
But money is tight and on Dec. 10 voters rejected a five-mill property tax for traffic proposed by the outgoing administration of Kip Holden. When you can’t get five mills worth of investment in roads when traffic is so horrendous here, there is an obvious challenge for a new mayor.
At a strategic level, how can the city-parish government work with its big payroll generators, all urban universities, to improve their physical surroundings? With so many needs, and neglected neighborhoods across the city, can there be an asset-based strategy, of targeting investments to improve the curb appeal of Southern or BRCC, or achieve the “quality of place” initiative pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber?