The cohort of more than 100 Baton Rouge-area community leaders in business, local government and education came away from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s canvas trip to Greenville, South Carolina, with a familiar tune: The need for a focus on downtown.
“This trip taught me the importance of downtown and if you look at what Greenville has and what Baton Rouge has—I’m not knocking Greenville in any way, they have waterfalls, mountains, but look what we have, we have the Mississippi River, a university, we’ve got so much industry in the area, it is absolutely the centerpiece of both north and south Baton Rouge,” said Joey Coco, Forte and Tablada CEO, during a debriefing meeting Friday. “It’s the bridge for all of the things to happen and there is no reason our downtown can’t be like this. When you look at it at night, it’s lit up … it’s safe, you can walk, there are trees, there is parking everywhere … our downtown could be exactly like this.”
Throughout the three-day trip, Greenville’s leaders touted their brightly lit, well-organized and vibrant downtown—redeveloped over 30 years from a once-desolate Main Street—as a key to bringing in young professionals, recruiting business, and making their region a destination. Other factors were at play, too, they say, such as business incubators, partnerships with local colleges, a commitment to building affordable housing and BMW’s decision to place its manufacturing plant in the region, with hundreds of other manufacturers following suit.
A focus on downtown is a theme repeated from past canvas trips, of which BRAC has planned and hosted 11. Past journeys took attendees to such places as Nashville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon.
One difference this year is a plan, confirmed by BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp, for attendees to meet up at the end of the month to follow up on ideas.
But Baton Rouge has focused on downtown before, devoting huge resources and time to boost its city center, remarked Baton Rouge Area Foundation Executive Vice President John Spain on Friday.
“Go back before, and I want you to think about Baton Rouge when there was no Shaw Center, there was no new courthouse, all of those state buildings and their 9,000 employees, there was no IBM, and $2.5 billion in investment came out of that effort.” Spain said. “We collectively know how to do this, we’ve done it before, and we are better prepared to do it again.”
Baton Rouge has had two downtown redevelopment plans in the past, Plan Baton Rouge I and II, and many of the items listed as goals in those plans have been accomplished, says Downtown Development Executive Director Whitney Hoffman Sayal, adding she hopes this will spark Plan Baton Rouge III.
“I definitely do think a plan is warranted and that we look at the landscape that we have, and look at what is needed to complement what we have accomplished, and look at how we are continuing to connect to our surrounding neighborhoods,” Sayal says.
Sayal says when she first took her position, Plan Baton Rouge III was part of discussions, but so far there is not a set timeline for the effort.
Some other questions and takeaways from the trip both mentioned during the debrief on Friday and in other conversations include:
- Should Baton Rouge alter its plan of government to a city manager structure?
- How can the area’s universities, community colleges and technical schools better work together?
- How can city leaders come together and agree on one objective goal?