Leaders grapple with challenge of reinvigorating north Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge Business Report

A year ago today, the police killing of Alton Sterling set off protests, national media attention and new laws and initiatives aimed at reforming the relationships between police and the communities they serve.

It also turned a spotlight toward the the lack of economic opportunity in north Baton Rouge, a historically underserved area that has long struggled to attract new businesses. Countless community leaders and organizations have since diagnosed some of the challenges and tried to kick off economic development in the region.

But when will the results show?

“Economic development is a long process. It will not happen in one year, it will not happen in two years. It may even take a decade or more,” says Rinaldi Jacobs, interim director of the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District. “It’s an unfair burden on north Baton Rouge to think someone can wave a magic wand.”

At the same time, Jacobs points to the more than $700 million in new public, private and industrial developments underway or recently completed in the area. Plus, the NBREDD is set to get its first installment of tax revenue by late August, when it will begin in full its work attracting businesses to the area.

Others, like Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s Michael DiResto, point to a list of accomplishments in the past year—like the Legislature passing a set of criminal justice laws expected to reduce the state’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate—as tangible signs of progress.

“I think what the sign of progress is going to be for everybody is going to be the growth in jobs,” he says. “There’s always more work to be done.”

Southern University is working on an ambitious plan called Imagine 20,000, which, if carried out as currently envisioned, would extend the university’s footprint deeper into north Baton Rouge and downtown, says Preston Castille, Southern University Alumni Federation president.

Castille says the effort is critical, given Southern’s role as an economic engine for the area. The university has several initiatives underway to create a link between K-12 schools and college, like the expansion of the law school downtown into the Mentorship Academy.

“Many of these initiatives were already underway,” he says. “I think the Alton Sterling shooting caused us to become even more focused on the sense of urgency on completing these projects.”

Castille adds he is so far happy with the pace of progress of spurring growth in north Baton Rouge, especially at Southern.

But leaders also recognize the long slog of reinventing a city and reforming deeply-held attitudes involves a host of needs, from education to criminal justice to business development and workforce training.

“It’s definitely understandable that people want these things to happen. I want it to happen overnight. I just know that’s not reality,” says George Bell, CEO of the Capital Area United Way. “What I can feel good about is knowing there are people, leaders in this community that are committed to seeing this journey through.”

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