“Yeah, I’d love for the city to be prettier, but… don’t we have real problems?” This is the understandably skeptical reaction we sometimes get when we discuss one of BRAC’s newest areas of work, quality of place. While the term “quality of place” – creating attractive, compelling, amenity-rich communities – may be unfamiliar, most people intuitively understand what it means and have been somewhere that did it well. It’s a broad issue, including basic maintenance and upkeep, urban infill development, and pretty much anything else that creates a community’s attractive, distinctive character.
Unfortunately, we have some quality of place issues here in the Capital Region. But the Capital Region also has a lot of other urgent issues to address – traffic, education, and racial division among others – and it’s easy to think of quality of place as an “icing on the cake” issue that takes a backseat.
While this is an understandable reaction, it’s an inaccurate one. The fact is, developing communities that inspire people to visit and stay is foundational to a healthy economy. We only have to look back to this year’s Statewide Economic Development Summit to understand why. Gregory Burkhart, a managing director of Duff & Phelps who has managed billions of dollars in corporate relocation, was asked to give a presentation on site selection trends. Once he stepped up to the mic, his first words were “There’s really only one trend: talent.”
Companies take a lot of things into consideration when they make relocation and expansion decisions, but access to talent trumps them all. And when people – particularly young professionals – make decisions about their own relocation, quality of place is a primary consideration. More and more, people are making decisions about where they want to live and finding a job there, rather than finding a job and moving to it. Or to use Burkhart’s words, “Business follows people, not the other way around.”
We can see this principle in action: just in the last few years, prominent companies like McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, General Electric, Motorola, Boeing, and others have been moving to major downtown areas. There are a variety of reasons for these moves, and most (though not all) include incentive packages. But for every single company, the primary motivation has been competing for workers more effectively.
Even companies who aren’t moving downtown are driven by talent, and the ability to attract talent from premier urban centers. Caterpillar CEO Jim Umpleby announced a relocation to suburban Deerfield, which is served by a commuter train from Chicago, by highlighting how the site “gives our employees many options to live in either an urban or suburban environment. We know we have to compete for the best talent to grow our company, and this location will appeal to our diverse, global team, today and in the future.”
If the Baton Rouge Area is to grow and attract that same diverse, increasingly mobile workforce, then we need to make sure that we’re creating the kind of communities that this workforce wants. This means taking care of the little things, like cutting grass and repairing sidewalks, but also means being bold on bigger issues, like a real commitment to the Redevelopment Authority, and major streetscape upgrades to community entryways and major thoroughfares. We can make Baton Rouge’s current image a thing of the past just like Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, and other areas have turned themselves around. But to be successful we need to make a real commitment, which means recognizing that quality of place isn’t the icing, it’s the cake.