Adam Knapp chose Bldg 5 as his Baton Rouge Classic lunch spot. With minimal dilly-dallying over what to order, he chose the Short Rib Smash, a braised short rib sandwich with havarti, pickled mustard aioli and pickled red onions on whole-grain bread. I had lunch-envied too many times over that very $16 sandwich and decided to order the same.
“It’s a fork-worthy sandwich,” Knapp said, as we sat on Bldg 5’s back patio on one of those perfect Louisiana spring days.
Knapp, who was named president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in April 2008, and his wife Megan have three kids between the ages of 9 and 14. He said, given his work and parenting responsibilities, he doesn’t have a lot of time for much else.
“When I’m not working, I mostly parent. Our son is in Cub Scouts. Our daughters in dance. One is in theater,” he said. “When we’re not parenting, mostly it’s trying to find evening activities that offer a mental break.”
What concerns Knapp about Baton Rouge?
“We always look to reject a football coach,” he said.
That tendency to reject and/or focus on seeing the worst in others bothers him — much like the challenge of public perception of place, Baton Rouge specifically, when it comes to “aggressively trying to recruit people,” he said.
With that, he and I hit upon plenty to discuss as we unraveled the juxtaposition and challenge of comparing what he described as “insane community pride” in places like New Orleans and Lafayette, compared to Baton Rouge.
One of his goals is to help Baton Rouge realize how much better it is than so many realize.
“The community is hungry for positive news,” he said. “Everyone being exposed to social media negativity doesn’t help.”
He’s on a mission to identify “the things that give people the full armor” of community pride.
“After the 2016 floods, a nonprofit called Together BR made bumper stickers. People wanted the bumper stickers that we’re all in this together,” he said, acknowledging the love/hate relationship many have with the Capital City.
He’s also passionate about an organization called Manners of the Heart, which is focused on civility and introducing the concepts of civility.
He said it’s important to note that Baton Rouge is growing faster than the Census Bureau expected the region to grow.
“They said we would be at 820,000 and we are at 850,000, but we are still at a negative in age range of 25-35,” he said. “You have to win in that age range.”
We talked about the domestic competition between cities trying to attract people willing to relocate.
“The battle to attract or to convince to return is fierce,” he said. “We have two jobs for every person looking for a job. We’re focused on attracting folks to come, telling them about the quality of life. Baton Rouge has 59,000 college students. We have to give them a guide path to companies across the area and retain them.”
He also said Baton Rouge needs to work on welcoming “a person whose sweatshirt doesn’t say a local university.”
Though I’ve found people to be welcoming here, I get what he’s saying and commented that it really bothers me that some of the culture here is about putting down other teams and fans rather than embracing the competition.
He and his wife enjoy low-key singer/songwriter concerts in venues like Beauvoir Park, where they listen to Americana music, like the Avett Brothers, for example.
“We don’t go to shows enough to be cool,” he said.
St. Francisville is one place where he and his family enjoy spending time.
“We love St. Francisville. There, we can hike, enjoy fun restaurants and good music. Plus, there are ghost stories — and it’s a half-hour from home. Plus, it’s hilly and pastoral.”
He’s also a disc golf fan and enjoys playing at various parks in the area. In a non-Chamber way, Knapp says he’s not good enough to claim to be a good golfer.
Coming back to Louisiana
Knapp returned to Louisiana in 2002 after working for an international consulting company.
“It was a combination of feelings that called me to come back to Louisiana,” he said.
But the literal phone call came from a colleague in the newsroom.
“Lanny Keller (columnist in The Advocate) is responsible for my coming back. I was a barista in Lake Charles and knew him there,” Knapp said. “Out of the blue, he called me up and said that the governor’s office is trying to diversify technology — he thought it might be a fit for me.”
Knapp was in his late 20s in Palo Alto, California, a place that was beginning to feel the bust of the dot com bubble. He interviewed with Mike Foster’s office, moved home and started trying to make a difference. He also met his wife while working in the governor’s office.
Since moving back to Louisiana, one of Knapp’s hard and fast rules has been to never live more than 10 minutes from his office. He’s been able to abide by that rule, though acknowledges that it has made less of a difference in the COVID years.
A public school product out of Lake Charles, Knapp’s children also attend public schools in Baton Rouge.
“The experience we’ve had in public school system here in Baton Rouge is remarkable,” Knapp said.
Knapp graduated from Barbe High School in Lake Charles, where he says he was “an OK student.” His parents still live in his hometown which continues to recover from a series of storms.
He attended an executive education program at Harvard focused on public leadership, where he learned about the different challenges of being a leader in a public sphere.
His biggest takeaway from the program was understanding the variety of factors that contribute to a public leader’s success — organizational impact, the ability to communicate outcome to the public, the finances of the organization, the effectiveness of managing a team and more.
“All of those factors contribute to the bottom line,” he said. “We’re not only measured on profitability or the ability to change public perception of a specific organization. We can’t be effective on any of them if we aren’t good at all of them.”