Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Callin' Baton Rouge

Recently, 225 Magazine released a list of “11 Ways To Make Baton Rouge Better.” As someone who has lived in Baton Rouge for five years and has a unique view of the city, as seen through the eyes of a student, tourist, ambassador, and now resident, I enjoyed watching 225 take on the challenge of remodeling Baton Rouge into a world-class city that would attract visitors and residents from all corners of the globe. Of course, being the person I am, I set out to make my own list and without further ado, the patented “Paul’s list of the 10 Best Ways To Improve Baton Rouge."

Fix Baton Rouge’s Identity Crisis – You may not know this, but Baton Rouge is actually the second largest city in the SEC behind Nashville, and East Baton Rouge is the largest parish in the state by population. With the sudden influx of residents after Katrina and a glut of construction and development, Baton Rouge has become a very different place from even five years ago. The city is sleeker and many of the big pipe dreams (Towne Center and Perkins Rowe) that BR never thought it would get are here to stay. With that, however, comes a bigger problem: what exactly is Baton Rouge? A cosmopolitan center of the state? A country town too big for its britches? A classic college town with a not-so-classic layout? Truth is, Baton Rouge is every one of these things and the best way to begin to develop the city is to pick an identity and play on it. Problem is, without much culture to call our own, there remains a lot of division as to who the city should represent. Let me fix that. Rally around the universities and make Baton Rouge a family-friendly college town with amenities that no other SEC city can match. LSU and SU are Baton Rouge. We need to realize that and make it so.

Commit To Growth In All Sectors – Baton Rouge’s growth has skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Unfortunately what is great for one sector is not so great for another. Between all the major industries in the city, what the leaders in Baton Rouge need to do is develop an economic growth prospectus that allows for sectors to grow without stepping on each other’s toes and minimize government involvement to do so. It will allow for a diverse portfolio of options to flourish in the city and not tie Baton Rouge down to one industry lest we be another boomtown on the River.

Make Baton Rouge The Cultural Crux Of The South – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Baton Rouge’s culture is none of what New Orleans and Lafayette have to offer. Which is actually good for us. Embrace the crossroads we have between I-10 and the River. Attract talent from Lafayette, New Orleans, and the greater South and make Baton Rouge the melting pot from which everything emanates. Our cultural crisis would be mightily solved if Downtown had a Donald Link restaurant one block and a John Besh restaurant on the next. Or that could just be me. I’m getting hungry…

Attract State-Of-The-Art Industry – Baton Rouge has a strategic location on the Mississippi River that makes it hard to pass up when locating industry. If we pull the best in the business in all sectors, much like we have already in manufacturing and filmmaking, Baton Rouge is set up to be the South’s Silicon Valley, with promise stretching all the way to New Orleans. We have the space and it can happen. It’s all about building the foundation.

Don’t Treat Symptoms, Find A Solution – Speaking of a foundation, the state’s education system is a joke not to be taken lightly. Governor Jindal’s reform plan is taking massive criticism from all sides but I say let it happen. The only thing that will spur this city and state to grow is the talent we have developing (or languishing) in the school system right now. People wonder why Louisiana suffers from brain drain while the solution is staring them right in the face. Fixing the schools is the only way to make this list a reality.

Develop Downtown – It’s bad that visitors to Baton Rouge tell me they love coming here because there’s nothing to do or it’s a great halfway point between New Orleans and Lafayette (all true statements). Downtown Baton Rouge has so much promise but it just sits there, a dead zone between Third Street and Capitol Park. ALIVE was shot down and there’s a small push to develop Third but that’s about it, folks. Granted, living in downtown is not very appealing. Until a supermarket comes to town and the area has more restaurants downtown will be nothing more than a destination to pass through. Now, I’m not talking about Spanish Town, just downtown proper but the area could be so much more than it is. Think about it: a riverwalk, shops, baseball park (in my fantasy Baton Rouge has a minor league team). It’s a great area that needs to sustain the momentum the Shaw Center has given to it.

Break The Chain Slump – I hate dining out in Baton Rouge. It is true I’m from New Orleans and that has a lot to do with it, but when the most popular restaurant in the city is Twin Peaks (shudder) then this dining scene needs to look in the proverbial mirror. Come on people, we can do better. I don’t want to eat at Generic American-Style Cuisine Restaurant every night. I want flair. I want panache. My two favorite restaurants in the city are Beausoleil and Pimanyoli’s. Two Baton Rouge-bred joints that focus on what we’re good at. The food trucks are also here to stay and that’s a good thing but there needs to be a fundamental change in the way that we think and eat: local. Chances are this isn’t changing (even that word has “chain” in it) but at least I tried.

Safer Is The Most Beautiful Word Of Them All – The worst problem our city faces is a crime epidemic that frankly ticks me off (see number 5). I just don’t get it and I probably never will. Crime is at a high not because of Katrina but because…(fill in reason). Maybe beefing up patrols and sending more people to prison isn’t the solution but there are people smarter than I who, hopefully, are working on this.

Build A Blueprint – From Port Allen to Denham Springs, Baton Rouge is not just about the city proper. There are amazing growth opportunities across the river and on the 10/12 corridor. A master plan is a tired, stale term for something that will forever be on the shelf at city hall. What is needed today is an interactive blueprint for a changing city. Throw it up online and let people add their input. Track the number of responses and see where the problems are solutions are. Make Baton Rougeans feel like the future of their city is linked to them, not a bunch of career bureaucrats. It’s a risk but without risks there is no reward. If you don’t believe me I’m sure a certain Edward Leslie Miles would beg to differ.

Keep the 10/12 Connection – We do not have to antagonize our neighbors to the east and the west. The best thing for the future of the state is to create a megalopolis between Lafayette, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Slidell. Not population-wise but in terms of information, technology, and industry. The primary economic drivers of the state lie on this 10/12 corridor and instead of bickering and fighting the best thing to do is to work together to improve the lot of the cities and make Louisiana the leader of the Gulf South, America’s Energy Corridor. With this joint leadership the things that our state craves will be in reach once again.

It’s tough to sit here and say this list isn’t fanciful. It’s almost fairy tale-esque. But in my eyes it’s the underpinnings of something greater for Baton Rouge. For all the jokes and stabs from the rest of the state Baton Rouge has to absorb, we can count the seat of government, flagship institution in the state, and largest industrial base in the 225. Everywhere else may just as well be jealous that in a time of uncertainty, Baton Rouge has sprinted out to the top of the pack in growth indicators. We have a long ways to go but rest assured we’ll get there. Until then, rock on Red Stick. .

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