|Starring our Pop-up Think Tank|
“Let's make Baton Rouge America's next great city.”
Mayor Kip Holden often uses this phrase at the end of his speeches, but what does it actually mean? Chances are it means different things to different people.
Envisioning targets and strategies to make a city flourish into the brightest possible future requires a complex rubric, for sure. Just as certain, our city has many areas that need attention as well as positive sectors poised for growth.
Some of the ideas for the following ways to improve Baton Rouge came directly out of our Pop-up Think Tank. (Click here to read more.) Others evolved more organically over the course of several months (and in a few cases, years) of talking, complaining and dreaming.
It is our hope that this list is not a conclusion but a beginning—the start of new conversations, new projects and new innovations.
Most of all, we want to hear from you. Tell us which of these ideas you like and which you don't. Tell us we're crazy. Email your own suggestions to email@example.com. We'll publish our favorite submissions in future issues. You can also see a video we made starring your fellow Baton Rouge citizens and their ideas for improving Baton Rouge by clicking here.
IDEA #1: Build Baton Rouge's brand on sports and fitness
For years, Baton Rouge has grappled with its identity. Say “New Orleans,” and it means Mardi Gras, seafood and jazz. Lafayette? A festival hub and the Cajun country gateway. Baton Rouge has yet to hone an identity that reflects even its strengths, much less any future goals. Ideas for brands have been tossed around from time to time. Blues music? Our friendly people? But the answer is right under our noses: Baton Rouge should build its brand on sports and fitness.
No community in Louisiana—and few in the country—can compete with our passion for athletics. And it is not seen only in Tiger Stadium, but on countless youth sports fields and in summer camps that draw out-of-town families to the city. Baton Rouge's pleasant weather has spawned a serious running culture and the Louisiana Marathon. A burgeoning bicycle culture has inspired a fleet of new athletes in the city, too. The presence of companies like renowned baseball bat manufacturer Marucci, sportswear start-up College District and video game titan EA Sports will continue to fortify Baton Rouge's brand as an athletics hub in multiple sectors.
The city can leverage these brands and a new fitness focus to codify a series of bold, long-term goals. Here's one: In five years Baton Rouge will host more summer sports camps than any other city in the Southeast. Here's another: LSU will partner with Pennington Biomedical Research Center, a worldwide leader in nutrition research, and a top-tier sportswear sponsor to host an annual summit on athletic training and fitness in Baton Rouge.
IDEA #2: Create a Boomerang Fund
Young people nationwide between ages 18 and 24 spend nearly 30% of their monthly income on debt repayment. That is double the percentage spent in 1992. It's forced many to move in with their parents after college or accept the first job that comes along. What if Baton Rouge developed an innovative student loan repayment fund that attracted young talent to the community?
Funded by philanthropists, the “Boomerang Fund” would act as a repayment stipend in exchange for a commitment to work and volunteer in Baton Rouge. The program could work jointly with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber's new Talent Database, which encourages dynamic young people nationwide to send in their resumes. Click here to read BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp's take on the Boomerang Fund idea.
IDEA #3: Piggyback on Bayou Country
Each year 75,000 music fans from across Louisiana, Texas and the Gulf Coast descend on Tiger Stadium for two days of boot-scootin' boogie at Bayou Country Superfest. Why not keep those visitors in town longer and attract even greater numbers by leveraging Quint Davis' Memorial Weekend music fest into a weeklong celebration of alternative country and folk, singer-songwriters of the South and indigenous Louisiana music?
Call it the Southern Routes Festival.
The key would be getting multiple venues like Manship Theatre, The Varsity, Chelsea's Café, Spanish Moon and others to partner and coordinate with Visit Baton Rouge to brand Southern Routes as a citywide event with one wristband or pass for all shows, as does Austin's South by Southwest festival. While musicians perform at night, daytime and early evening movie screenings could showcase the year's best features, shorts and music videos made by Southern filmmakers.
“The idea of a Southern film and music festival is a good idea, simply because it is different,” says Zack Godshall, director of two Sundance-accepted features and an instructor at LSU. “A film and music festival that celebrates Southern artists would be a great thing for the community and for the state at large. I'd love for it to bring together artists, filmmakers and musicians from all around the South with local students, filmmakers and film enthusiasts.”
IDEA #4: Ban Smoking in Bars
Baton Rouge General can give all sorts of reasons why banning smoking indoors at bars is a good idea, but this may be the best one: Alexandria already did it. Do we really want Alexandria looking more progressive than the state capital? Besides, Louisiana banned smoking in enclosed restaurants six years ago. Why split hairs between the health of servers and patrons in restaurants and those in bars?
New York City banned bar smoking in 2003, and if smokers—less than 20% of the adult population nationally—up north can brave the outdoors for a cigarette, they can do the same in Baton Rouge. To paraphrase Sinatra, if non-smoking bars can make it there, they can make it anywhere. The many California-based actors and film professionals working locally will feel right at home, and the 80% who enjoy cocktails and live bands can breathe a sigh of relief. Click here to read a bar manager's take on the issue.
IDEA #5: Find the apps for that
Louisiana has fast become a destination for software and app development, so why not use game theory to leverage this budding sector for the public good? Baton Rouge could hold a competition in which local app developers create useful programs with a range of available public data, including wi-fi locations, traffic accidents, mass transit, public amenities, crime stats, volunteer opportunities, food pantry drop-offs, maps of parks and more. New York City's NYC Big Apps 3.0 is a well-regarded model. The program awards $50,000 in cash and prizes to a winning app developer who creates mobile programs that incorporate public data. The project could also help develop skills for potential programmers in Baton Rouge and introduce employers and venture capitalists to their work. And, it would create a new way for Baton Rouge residents to interact with information about their community. nycbigapps.com
IDEA #6: Make sixth grade amazing
Ah, middle school. No longer “little kids” but not yet teenagers, most middle-school students are, for the very first time, given options: band or art class? Choir or theatre? This crossroads makes sixth grade the best place to target young people hungry to discover themselves and their passions by providing increased one-on-one mentorship programs, after-school workshops, project-based entrepreneur days and student-specific apprenticeships.
According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, 25% of East Baton Rouge Parish's public school students who were freshmen in 2006 dropped out before graduating.
That number should decrease if school officials and private partners work together on opportunities to show sixth-graders practical ways to make a living in the arts, culinary, design, film, music and digital technology industries—all growing sectors in the region.
A coordinated effort will inspire Baton Rouge's next generation and help demystify the workforce and higher education so that by the time these students graduate, they will have a clearer idea of what they want to do for a living and how to get there.
Pittsburgh understands this well. The Manchester Bidwell Corporation offers skills training, arts and culinary programs to both students and adults in transition in the Steel City. Pittsburgh Public Schools recently partnered with the United Way on a pilot program called Be a 6th Grade Mentor. Now in eight middle schools, it is the largest mentorship effort in the history of the region.
“Seventy-five percent of the students in our program report that they are working harder academically, and 78% say they feel they can talk about their feelings and difficult issues with their mentor,” says Damon Bethea, mentoring project director for the Pittsburgh program. “The key is partnering with the school system, local organizations, foundations, business leaders and mentoring groups, but not relying on several people to oversee certain aspects here and there. You need one point person to oversee and coordinate the program.” bea6thgradementor.org
IDEA #7: Host artists-in-residence
Through public-private partnerships, fund a new community artist colony, gallery and co-working space that invites Baton Rougeans to have new experiences and conversations within the unique worlds created by a series of artists-in-residence.
This could be new construction or the renovation of an existing structure. Either way, Mid City makes a lot of sense.
Twice a year the overseeing organization could invite two creatives of different disciplines—be it sculpture, painting, photography or film—to receive free living and work space for six months in exchange for instructing a weekly class of area students, producing work for an open house and donating time to a local arts organization or event.
Top local talent could be retained by hosting an annual pitch competition among area artists, with the winners receiving one-year studio scholarships for access to additional work space in the new complex.
In 1999, Bank of America made a large donation to turn a striking symbol of urban decay, a long-vacant Gothic Revival church in uptown Charlotte, N.C., into The McColl Center for Visual Art. With individual studio space for eight artists, shared facilities for photography, digital media, sculpture and more, and gallery spaces for hosting open houses that attract 1,000 visitors per event, McColl operates with a full-time staff of 14 and an annual operating budget of $2.5 million. In the 13 years since it opened, The McColl Center has launched an ambitious continuing education program called Innovation Institute while uptown Charlotte has been revitalized with new restaurants, bars, condos and retail near the art center.
“Our goal is to raise the value of artists to society,” says Suzanne Fetscher, McColl's executive director. “The best way to do that is to put artists and the community in the same room. That intellectual exchange can be really invigorating in both directions.” mccollcenter.org
IDEA #8: Remember the river
In the eyes of the entire parish, a singular focus on downtown development has been divisive at times. While a vital downtown is crucial, so is developing our riverfront—be it near downtown or elsewhere, like closer to LSU. A mixed-use riverfront gathering place is an idea those in the outlying bedroom communities are more likely to get behind.
Many U.S. cities situated on rivers have woven waterways into their very identity. Cincinnati is one. Chattanooga is another. Even Shreveport-Bossier City has made the riverfront part of its urban character.
From a shipping perspective, the Mississippi River serves an important purpose. But when it comes to design, the river gets short shrift.
The Mississippi River presents interesting opportunities for both East and West Baton Rouge parishes. Affordable residential and retail, water taxis and more could spring up along the west bank of the river, not just in downtown Baton Rouge, but on various points between the Central Business District and the new L'Auberge Hotel & Casino to the south.
Extending a levee-top bike path from downtown Baton Rouge to New Orleans and renovating the old run-down City Dock area into a mixed-use development would connect us regionally and give Baton Rouge an iconic riverfront structure.
Yes, the levee presents topographical challenges, but the Mighty Mississippi is a unique amenity that should not be overlooked.
IDEA #9: Feed our food deserts
Old South Baton Rouge, the area between downtown and LSU, is just one of the city's food deserts. Residents there have immediate access to the processed foods sold at convenience stores and fast-food chains but none of the fresh produce offered by grocery stores and supermarkets—because there are no stores like this nearby. Geographically, the elderly and those without cars are cut off from a healthy diet.
The South Side of Chicago has a similar food desert problem, but last May, three of the city's community organizers launched the non-profit Fresh Moves on the wheels of a former city bus they converted into a mobile fruit and vegetable stand.
With three volunteer founders and five paid employees—a project manager, a driver and three sales associates—Fresh Moves is supported by grant funding and more than a dozen private sponsors and partnerships, including one with the culinary science department at Kendall College. Affecting an area wider than a neighborhood retail store would, the bus reached more than 5,300 unique customers and sold more than seven tons of produce—much of it organic or local—in its first nine months.
“Getting buy-in from the city is key,” says Steve Casey, co-founder of Fresh Moves. “Officials have to have a need to support you. People may think a food desert is someone else's problem that doesn't affect them, but eating is a civil right, and putting the issue in that context changes the conversation.” freshmoves.org
During the process of writing this cover story, 225 learned that BREADA, the local non-profit behind the Red Stick Farmers Market, is working on a similar mobile produce market idea. For updates on this and other BREADA projects and farmer's market events, visit redstickfarmersmarket.com.
IDEA #10: Launch a citywide art project with a purpose
Most have seen the colorful hooves and horns of CowParade, the 75-city-strong public art movement that simultaneously attracts tourists, promotes local artists and raises money for children's hospitals worldwide. Baton Rouge's version should take the concept one step further by adding function to form, a decision that reflects our position as the functional center of a creative state. We suggest a combination sculpture and bike rack to promote Baton Rouge's identity as a fitness-focused capital city (see #1).
Baton Rouge artist and designer Hannah March Sanders sketched this pelican model exclusively for 225. See more of her work at hannahmarchsanders.com.
IDEA #11: Make ''single-purpose'' a dirty word
If anything deserves to raise the righteous indignation of Baton Rougeans, it is the term “single-purpose.” Come on. It's 2012. Louisiana is 200 years old, and as the state capital, Baton Rouge has a lack of outdoor spaces and developments that work effectively as destinations. Wouldn't it be nice if local developments stopped being single-purposed and were instead engineered as communal spaces able to create powerful and extended user experiences?
We need higher standards for what we find acceptable as development in our community. The majority of new construction in Baton Rouge is for a single purpose.
A parking lot goes up without commercial liner buildings. A courthouse is built near space designated for a new downtown square without first-floor retail facing that square. A new neighborhood is built without sidewalks or green space or multiple outlets to the existing street grid.
A new bike-centric park is built without the proper connectivity that would allow many area residents to actually arrive at the park by bicycle; consequently, a cyclist is struck and killed by an automobile trying to make his way to the park.
Even our amenities lack broad focus. The University and City Park Lakes, arguably the city's most popular recreational feature, don't offer experiences rich in the kind of retail and ancillary attractions found in places like Lady Bird Johnson Lake—formerly Town Lake—in Austin.
Though greatly improved with tennis courts and a dog park, City Park needs more. It needs to be our community's “Central Park,” with bike trails and walking paths that connect to those around the lakes, an amphitheatre and adjoining retail and condos. We need these things more than we need another nine holes of golf five minutes from Webb Park. Imagine students, families and runners relaxing inside a new café on the lakeshore with its covered deck jutting out over the water.
Most important, new developments should dovetail with existing assets. Any new construction between City Park and Acadian Thruway along Perkins should connect to the Perkins Road Overpass District through a network of well-lit pedestrian footpaths. A well-situated parking garage would invite residents to daytrip in this area from across Baton Rouge.
This “mini-Magazine Street” is a budding, locally owned commercial area well integrated with nearby neighborhoods. Residents there have the unique ability to grocery shop, get a haircut, eat out, take a yoga class and buy clothes, coffee, art, flowers, prescription drugs, furniture, gifts and a cocktail, all without having to set foot in a car. This area needs to be protected, improved and used as a model for other pockets of the city.
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Bad Guys, Good Eats! Pop-Up Dinner at Restaurant IPO
Chef and 225 contributor Jay D. Ducote and Chef Chris Wadsworth hosted the Bad Guys, Good Eats! dinner at Restaurant IPO Wednesday night. The dinner was themed around famous movie villains, pairing cocktails and ales with plates of food resembling famous baddies like The Joker, Lord Voldemort, Hannibal Lector, and many others. The highlights of the night were the three middle courses—a black bean soup laced with blood sausage to signify Lord Voldemort, a brace of coneys on black eyed peas resembling Sauron, and lamb medallions atop a fava bean puree to pay homage to the famous favorite of Hannibal Lector.
Elizabeth Arkley Hammett, a local nursing student and Fur Ball co-coordinator, and her husband Grey Hammett III, who works in commercial real estate, will take you through our summer guide. And they'll look good while doing it, too. Where noted, their clothes and accessories are available from local retailers.
These swimsuits will keep you stylish all summer long
Better Block BR
On Saturday the two blocks between Bedford and Beverly drives on April 13, 2013, residents will get to see a model of what Government Street could look like if we push local and state officials to update the roadway to a safer, more "complete street" model.