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?”
When having drinks on Tsunami's rooftop terrace at sundown, as the writer described in the piece, it's easy to think so. But according to members of the “creative class” who have spoken to Business Report, Baton Rouge is going to have to do a lot more than cultivate a few isolated pockets of hipness to attract and retain a critical mass of young, educated professionals.
“Why does it matter if young professionals like us or not?” this magazine explained in 2010. “Quite simply, educated 25- to 34-year-olds are the labor force that will shape the Capital Region's economic future. Employers will go where they go.”
Reversing the “brain drain” has long been an obsession in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal sometimes begins his speeches at various economic development announcements by talking about his desire to create jobs that keep Louisiana's sons and daughters here.
And indeed, jobs perhaps are the most important factor. But not just any jobs: quality jobs that young people actually want, with opportunities to grow. And because Baton Rouge doesn't have the same range of choices as an Atlanta, Dallas or Houston, the Capital Region may just have to work a little harder. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has launched multiple programs in the past few years—such as the “Welcome Back to Baton Rouge” campaign, begun in 2008—aimed at tempting erstwhile locals to reconsider the city where they grew up or got their degree.
Baton Rouge's foundational industries—chemical manufacturing, construction, education and government come to mind—provide a good living for many people, but none can be said to be very sexy. Digital media, backed by generous state incentives, is one sector local leaders are trying to cultivate to not only create new jobs but change the image of a city.
“One of the many positives that has come out of Baton Rouge and Louisiana seeking out digital media companies is that it has helped us quickly learn what the creative class is looking for,” says Jesse Hoggard, director of communications for the Louisiana Technology Park.
Jobs aren't the whole story; culture plays a part as well. The south Louisiana way of life, its food, music, and tight-knit family atmosphere, certainly is a selling point. In a world where more and more jobs can be done from anywhere, quality of life becomes more important.
But there's a dark side to our culture, too. In 2007, Business Report acknowledged the “elephant in the room”: intolerance. Not just racism, but sexism, homophobia, and a general resistance to new ideas and new ways of doing things. While newcomers often grow to like the Baton Rouge area if they stick around, many report difficulty finding their place. On the other hand, talented natives often feel stifled.
“The system here keeps you down,” restaurant and bar owner Jack Warner says. “Young people would rather move away than try to break through.”
Of course, many of the things young professionals want are pretty much the same as what everyone else values, like good schools, affordable housing, personal safety, and fun stuff to do on the weekend. Improving the basics makes the city more attractive to everyone, including 29-year-olds with advanced degrees.
In the 2007 story, Mike Polito, president of MAPP Construction, says changing the attitudes of close-minded people probably is a lost cause. But maybe they can be outnumbered. In young-professional magnets like Raleigh, Austin and Nashville, he suggests, the negative voices are harder to hear over those of people who prefer to move forward.
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