Six of the leading candidates to become Baton Rouge’s next mayor-president outlined their ideas Tuesday for less traffic, a prettier city and a better climate for economic development at a mayoral debate.
Mayoral candidates State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, former State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, state Sen. Bodi White, Metro Councilman John Delgado, realtor Darryl Gissel and former Metro Councilman Smokie Bourgeois said during the debate that Baton Rouge has many of the qualities to become the next great American city for business. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which currently receives money from local government for economic development, sponsored the debate and chose the candidates based on their internal polling of the 12 candidates in the race.
Daily standstill traffic is one of the biggest hurdles in enticing businesses to relocate in Baton Rouge, the candidates said.
Republican Delgado said he wanted to turn part of Airline Highway into a toll road and to pay for traffic improvements through a public-private partnership, and he also said he would support a northern loop. Independent candidate Darryl Gissel said a new Mississippi River Bridge could be the answer, and he complimented Mayor-President Kip Holden’s Green Light Plan for traffic improvements, saying “it’s been the one thing that’s worked in Baton Rouge.”
Democrat Marcelle said she supported the Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan, or BUMP, to link interstates 10, 12 and 110 and U.S. 61 and U.S. 190 into a new path around Baton Rouge.
White, a Republican, focused on his past transportation wins, saying he helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in the Louisiana Legislature to widen Interstate 12 and Interstate 10. He said the traffic problems are known, but political leaders have not prioritized them enough.
Broome, a Democrat, said she would dedicate a member of her administration to fixing the parish’s traffic problems. She also said she would want to use suggestions from the Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Solutions group like widening the Interstate and using other forms of transportation like bike-shares.
Bourgeois, a Republican, said Baton Rouge needs a traffic response team to immediately clear wrecks that are clogging roads.
“You go to other states and when you have a wreck, you immediately clear the right of way. We have a tendency here to stand around and marvel at it,” Bourgeois said, inciting laughs from the crowd of around 100 people who attended the debate was in the auditorium of Baton Rouge Magnet High.
The candidates also said blight and litter are turning off potential businesses and residents who are not enamored with Baton Rouge’s “quality of place.”
White said the local government should partner with nonprofit organizations that can pay homeless and out-of-work people to help clean up the parish.
Broome and Marcelle both said they would want to roll out cleanup and blight removal initiatives, while Gissel said the city-parish’s Department of Environmental Services should oversee beautification.
Delgado said litter should be the least of the parish’s concerns when blighted buildings are ruining neighborhoods. He said he would want to fully fund the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority — as Holden has yanked the agency’s funding — to clean up blight.
All of the candidates later on raised their hands when asked if they would pledge to fund the RDA.
Asked about how to economically develop the parish, Delgado pointed to his plans to develop the 13-mile stretch of mostly undeveloped land along the Mississippi River. He said it’s prime property.
“We build fake lakes all over this parish for people to live next to,” Delgado said.
Gissel said he would continue the city-parish’s contract with BRAC, and Marcelle said the model of rebuilding downtown Baton Rouge needed to be replicated across East Baton Rouge Parish, especially in undeveloped north Baton Rouge.
“There has to be an evenly distributed amount of growth,” Marcelle said.
Broome said the city-parish should use the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport as an anchor to lure business and that it should invest more in technology. She pointed to her legislative record of allocating capital outlay dollars for the airport.
White said Baton Rouge has the assets that go into economic development, but they are not properly advertised. He mentioned LSU, Southern University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge Community College and technical schools as some assets.
Debate moderator and Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott complimented the candidates throughout the night for their behavior, as they mostly focused on themselves and did not attack the others. Scott asked a couple of quick fire questions that he asked the candidates to answer by raising their hands.
One was whether they would pledge to keep Baton Rouge as one city should the effort to return to create the city of St. George in the southeastern part of the parish.
The only candidate who did not raise their hand was Bourgeois, though White slowly raised his after the other candidates’ hands quickly shot up. The audience laughed and White smiled, but he turned angry later in the night when he chastised BRAC for asking the yes or no question about such a divisive issue.
White sponsored multiple bills in the Louisiana Legislature to create the school system that eventually grew into the movement for a new city, and he has come under fire from other candidates for doing so. He said during his closing comments that it was unfair for BRAC to ask the yes or no St. George question, and that the people pushing for St. George were simply trying to help their children get better schools.
“I’m not against St. George, but it’s a divisive issue,” White said.
At another point in the evening, Scott asked the candidates to name their favorite leaders.
Broome named Martin Luther King, Jr. as hers, saying she got to meet him when she was a child.
“One of the striking points that he always talked about was the interconnectedness of humanity,” Broome said.
Gissel named Ronald Reagan, saying he was able to work with the former president when Gissel was a Republican party operative. Marcelle said Frederick Douglass, Delgado said Abraham Lincoln, White said Winston Churchill and Bourgeois said John F. Kennedy.