The more than 100 business, political and community leaders who participated in the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s canvas trip to Greenville, South Carolina, came away with the goals of improving downtown, getting LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College to work together more closely to address workforce needs, and boosting the public school system.
And they agree the key is to keep meeting regularly to address these issues.
“We need to meet in a month and another month to take ownership of the various projects that come out of these trips if we want our community to improve,” said Ralph Bender, chief financial officer of Manship Media/WBRZ.
State Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, said she’s been on five BRAC canvas trips, but there has never been any follow through. “We need to come together on a very regular basis and work together to achieve things.”
A tentative date has been set at the end of November for canvas participants to meet and discuss the trip.
Canvas trips are intended to learn ways that other communities are addressing issues. During this week’s visit from the Baton Rouge group, Greenville leaders pointed with pride to their thriving downtown, which has busy parks and trails and is surrounded by upscale condominiums and office buildings.
Edgardo Tenreiro, CEO of Baton Rouge General Medical Center, said city leaders need to follow Greenville’s lead and have a “hyperfocus and obsession” about improving downtown.
“If downtown Baton Rouge is not cool and vibrant, there’s nothing we can accomplish,” he said.
Other participants said a more positive attitude about the city needs to be developed.
“Are we going to change the narrative about our city and look at the glass being half full not half empty?” Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome asked.
This was the 11th regional canvas trip, but the first one since 2018, when BRAC and city leaders visited Cincinnati. The program was started in 2003 and led to visits to Austin, Texas; Nashville; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Pittsburgh.
Participants said the trips have been a good way to meet other leaders and develop connections that wouldn’t be possible back in Baton Rouge.
The Center of Excellence for Transportation Technology at Baton Rouge Community College was an idea born after a trip in 2009 to Richmond, Virginia, where the group learned about how community colleges in the area were working directly with industry leaders to address workforce needs, according to Adam Knapp, BRAC’s CEO and president.
John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, said local leaders know how to redevelop the downtown area. He pointed to the $2.5 billion in investments that have been made in the central business district, including the Shaw Center for the Arts, the relocation of state office buildings and the IBM building/525 Main residential tower.
The city needs to take advantage of the Mississippi River and do something “spectacular”, like the $225 million Audubon Alive nature-themed tourist attraction that was pushed by former Mayor-President Kip Holden but rejected by voters in 2008 and 2009, he said. Getting a major attraction built is hard work that takes time, just like the dredging and deepening of the LSU lakes. The first phase of the lakes project should be completed at the end of 2023. “We have more opportunity if we stay engaged and share your dreams,” Spain said. “We’ve done it successfully in the past.”