Quarrel if you will with some of the tough stances taken over the last decade or so by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, but few are likely to contest the architectural judgment of BRAC President Adam Knapp on his own building.
The dark — very dark — black cladding of the two-story box on Laurel in downtown earned it the nickname “the Death Star” from Knapp.
We are now long past Episode IV of “Star Wars,” obviously one of Knapp’s formative experiences and the Death Star is, too. Now completely redone as the David E. Roberts Center for Economic Development, the renovated building was named for the CEO of the Excel Group, for his leadership but also appropriately enough because industrial construction is a major employer in the capital region.
The new building might only be of note for business types involved with BRAC, but in fact, the nonprofit has already transformed itself beyond the traditional role of the old chambers of commerce around the country.
Under Knapp and his predecessor Stephen Moret, BRAC has become a constructive leader in ways that many regions of the state have envied. It has raised money to hire a staff that can hold its own intellectually with business organizations across the country.
The analysis that undergirds BRAC’s positions on the issues has given it credibility beyond the traditional business constituency of a chamber of commerce. It has also brought controversy, as BRAC’s support for taxes to support local services and institutions is sometimes a tough sell.
Public education is a vital long-term interest for the region, but that’s really true of any other city in the country. BRAC’s support for coherent and accountable policies going forward is less controversial, perhaps, and thus does not attract as much attention. Over time, though, that will help build Baton Rouge future workforce, and BRAC’s support is once more a constructive commitment to policies that aren’t always easy to push in today’s fractured political environment.
Nor has BRAC shied away from tough stances on more directly business-oriented issues, as with the stalwart advocacy of the Industrial Tax Exemption, one of the less-defensible tax breaks for Baton Rouge’s business sectors. An ultimate compromise on all the rules for ITEP remains a work in progress. Is BRAC too heavy-handed in its political response to challenges to an arguably out-of-date tax break, and assessment practices that deserve more scrutiny? Maybe, but a business organization is still at bottom precisely that.
Regarding another controversial subject, BRAC’s analysis of the financial deficiencies in the much-heralded agitation for a separate suburban “city” of St. George could sway voters on a complex topic.
The Roberts Center is intended to be a gathering place for community organizations as well as business-oriented groups. This reflects the broad-gauge orientation of the chamber.
Agree or disagree, the chamber is providing the kind of leadership that many cities lack. Its positions by and large are those of the business community, but there’s a difference between a reflexive policy and one that is more progressive and reflecting some meaningful analysis of the region’s needs.
The new building is thus an outward and visible sign of the significant changes made in recent years at BRAC, and to the benefit of the nine-parish region it serves.