On the road
They called it the “Canvas Workshop.” That's not a typo; it's a pun.
“We are not going to 'canvass' the city of Austin; we are going to paint a picture of what the future is going to look like,” Jimmy Lyles, president of the Chamber of Greater Baton Rouge, was quoted saying. (Paint a picture on a “canvas”; get it?)
Attorney Charles Landry had gone on similar junkets with New Orleans civic leaders to different cities, including Austin, to learn how other communities tackled particular issues. Austin was of particular interest to Baton Rouge: A few decades prior, the Texas capital and college town had a profile similar to that of Baton Rouge, but had since exploded in population and gained a reputation as a magnet for young professionals and dynamic entrepreneurs.
Landry, Lyles and Mayor Bobby Simpson led about 120 Baton Rougeans on the trip, including Business Report Publisher Rolfe McCollister and Business Report writer [later editor] JR Ball. The group heard from a number of Austin's leaders, including at least one Baton Rouge native. Topics included K-12 education, entertainment, quality of life, and the role of universities in economic development.
In a column written after the trip, McCollister says most attendees were looking to study “best practices” and learn from the successes and mistakes of what was once a peer city. But others seemed preoccupied with a search for flaws, and even tried arguing with some of the speakers. And while some of the Austin 120 returned excited and eager to change Baton Rouge, others shifted into damage control mode, stressing that our city actually was doing pretty well.
The reason for that defensiveness might be found in a quote from Stratfor CEO George Friedman of Austin, a Canvas Workshop speaker who warned that if Baton Rouge does the right things, the “people in power in the community won't be in power anymore.” By the end of 2004, Lyles and Simpson were done.
It would perhaps be a gross oversimplification to draw a straight line from the Austin workshop, and a subsequent trip to Nashville, to the replacement of both leaders. Simpson may have lost his re-election bid in part because some elites, inspired to dream bigger by the trips, felt he lacked vision. But he also took heat for crime and a northern bypass proposal. Lyles himself was quoted after he stepped down as saying he wasn't the right man for the job of implementing the strategic growth plan he helped initiate in 2002.
Whatever the reasons, Lyles and Simpson were out, and Stephen Moret and Kip Holden were in. The chamber, under its new name of BRAC and its new mission as a regional economic development body, continues to lead trips to various cities every year or so. Participants come back with a list of “lessons learned,” but the list of lessons actually put into practice is much shorter.
“We learn about the same things every year, but we come home energized and nothing happens,” says one businessman. “It's clear what we've got to do, but we aren't willing to do it."
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