The Baton Rouge 30
|Thirty stories about who we are and how we got to be that way.|
The media loves its lists.
We see them all the time: the top 10 this; the 25 best that. Business Report boasts several throughout the year: “Top 100 Private Companies,” “40 Under 40” and even an entire issue devoted to the phenomenon, appropriately called the Book of Lists.
The “Baton Rouge 30” follows in that tradition. It is not a rehashing of 30 Business Report articles, although the magazine's reporting over the years figures prominently. It's also not a list of the most important moments, biggest surprises, or most notable failures.
What it contains, however, is 30 stories about stuff that happened during the Business Report era that mattered. Some of the events described here, such as Hurricane Gustav, may have only changed our lives for a few weeks. Others, like the schools desegregation case, changed Baton Rouge forever. There are stories about progress (the first black mayor) and setbacks (the Stanford Group scandal). There are blasts from the past (remember when Jimmy Swaggart was a megastar?) and looks at what makes our region run (natural gas, by the way).
We did not rank the stories from most to least important. We don't even claim that these necessarily are the 30 most important stories we could have told. But it all matters, in one way or another, and it all adds up to a partial history of the Capital Region's last three decades.
We would never attempt to summarize everything that happened over the last 30 years. But hopefully, the stories we did choose provide some insight into what those years were like, along with a few hints about where we're headed.
On the road
They called it the “Canvas Workshop.” That's not a typo; it's a pun.
Politico on the move
Piyush Jindal was born in Baton Rouge in 1971 to Indian immigrants who arrived only months before. He says he nicknamed himself “Bobby” as a young boy.
Fall from grace
Apparently, God speaks to Jimmy Swaggart. Not in an inspirational, feeling-His-presence-while-watching-the-sunset sort of way. Directly.
Our first black mayor
Melvin “Kip” Holden has been a broadcast reporter, lawyer, and state lawmaker. But it took him three tries to land the job he has now: mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish. He is the first black mayor or mayor-president in Baton Rouge history.
The football factor
LSU football, for better or worse, is the biggest thing going in Baton Rouge. Those tailgate parties aren't all about boozing and eating; business connections are made or strengthened. And when the team is winning, everyone walks around in a better mood, and people spend more money.
Baton Rouge and New Orleans have always regarded each other warily. Many people in Baton Rouge see New Orleans as lascivious, lazy and irresponsible, full of old-money elites taking long lunches and dropping thousands on Mardi Gras balls while their city slides into irrelevance. Many New Orleanians see Baton Rouge as dull, suburban and sprawling, the land of government bureaucrats, tailgating frat boys and chemical plants.
The big swindle
From the very beginning, the purported certificates of deposit sold to Baton Rouge-area investors by the Stanford Group delivered extraordinarily high rates of return. Investors were told the Stanford International Bank in Antigua was in a tax-free jurisdiction, and maintained low overhead, passing the savings along to them.
United Companies Financial Corp. began life in 1947 as a two-man, one-room consumer finance company in the old Lafayette Hotel on Lafayette and Main streets. United grew into a quintessential homegrown success story, employing as many as 3,500 people, including 1,200 locally. From 1991 through 1997, the total value of home loans the company made reportedly surged from $253.6 million to $1.5 billion.
The race from hell
The front cover of the Nov. 5, 1991, issue of Business Report is not subtle. There are head shots of Republican David Duke and Democrat Edwin Edwards, with a big red X over Duke's face. “Business faces disaster,” the headline warns.
The other recession
The year Business Report was born, 1982, was not an auspicious time to launch a new venture. In fact, Louisiana was just entering the worst recorded recession in its history, according to economist Loren Scott.
Smart growth” and its cousin “new urbanism” (the two terms sometimes are used interchangeably) have only been catchphrases in America since the 1980s. But there's nothing new about their founding principles.
Baton Rouge is a violent city. Some years, its rate of murders per capita ranks among the nation's highest.
The wrath of Gustav
When Hurricane Gustav threatened the Capital Region in 2008, the memory of Katrina and Rita, two storms from the devastating 2005 hurricane season, still was fresh. Which may explain why everyone, from state government on down, seemed quicker and better organized than they had been three years prior.
The price of natural gas
Lafayette and Houma are the biggest oil towns in Louisiana. When the price for a barrel of oil rises, those cities thrive.
An emerging downtown
Governments love to issue plans and studies. Sometimes, creating a study is a good way to say you've done something, without really having to do anything.
The rise of a city
City of Central, as it's officially known, isn't much of a city, and it's not really in the center of anything. It is, however, a thriving rural bedroom community spread over 66 square miles and home to nearly 27,000 people, according to the 2010 census.
It's almost indisputable to note that most of Louisiana's state budget is protected by statute or the constitution. So when the budget must be cut, there are only two fat targets: health care and higher education. Even when the state isn't in the midst of one of its frequent budget crises, there are questions about how much Louisiana truly cares about higher ed.
Saving the Capitol House
Carolyn Bennett, executive director of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, was at a training session held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation about 20 years ago, where everyone took turns naming the most significant “white elephant” building in their city. Bennett, representing Baton Rouge, picked the Capitol House hotel.
For love of the game
Gambling has deeper historical roots in Louisiana than in any other Southern state, Michael Nelson and John Lyman Mason write in How the South Joined the Gambling Nation. During the last century, with help from New York mobster Frank Costello's organization, illegal gambling flourished. According to Louisiana State Police, Nelson and Mason say, by the mid-1970s gambling was a quarter-billion-dollar industry, the third largest in the state.
While New Orleans was drowning, Baton Rouge was freaking out.
The Pennington challenge
When Allen Copping, then chancellor of the Louisiana State Medical Center, met with newly wealthy oilman C.B. “Doc” Pennington in 1980, Copping thought he was there to talk about a donation of $5 million or so. Copping had been told Pennington was interested in making a large gift to an educational institution, and Copping had suggested a center for nutrition research.
The bill comes due
Voters in East Baton Rouge Parish don't like to tax themselves, and they've proven it time and again over the past several decades. But the crumbling infrastructure was never going to fix itself, and at some point the bill for all that deferred work was going to come due. That time is now, with “now” being the Kip Holden administration.
Coming into their own
East Baton Rouge patted itself on the back when it was named the state's most populous parish by the 2010 census. But in truth, the parish added fewer than 30,000 residents over 10 years. The real growth was in its neighbors to the east and southeast.
Birth of a country club
They said it wouldn't work here. “They” say that about a lot of things, especially in Baton Rouge, but in the case of The Country Club of Louisiana, the naysayers had two pretty strong arguments.
The cover of the premiere issue of 225 magazine (produced by the same company that publishes Business Report) asked, in 2005: “Is BR turning—dare we say it—cosmopolitan?”
The row over Rouzan
According to many real estate pros, the old Ford farm, 119 acres along Perkins Road between Southdowns and Pollard Estates in the heart of south Baton Rouge, was the most attractive plot of open land left in Baton Rouge. Developer Tommy Spinosa paid $15 million for it in 2005.
The longest-running schools desegregation case in America ended in 2003. But it was hard for anyone involved to say what, if anything, had been accomplished.
The 411 on 225
Of all the changes that have happened in the Capital Region over the past 30 years, getting a new area code in 1998 is far from the most momentous. But if nothing else, the 225 area code unites the Capital Region, and it's one thing that touches pretty much everyone's life—at least, everyone who has ever given out their phone number.
Not dead yet
Much of the Deep South joined the GOP decades ago. But Louisiana hung back, passing nearly a century without a Republican as governor and 120 years without one in the U.S. Senate. Those were the heyday years: Huey Long, John Breaux, J. Bennett Johnston, Edwin Edwards (before he went to prison) and Cleo Fields getting out the vote on buses and Mardi Gras floats.
Louisiana may not have royalty or Hollywood stars to keep us entertained, but politics has always been a much-loved spectator sport. And in the past three decades, few have kept us more diverted than former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
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