Daily Report

This Afternoon's Headlines / Tue, August 19, 2014

News alert: Judge rules against Jindal administration in Common Core suit

A state judge ruled late today in favor of a group of teachers and parents who support the Common Core education standards and want Gov. Bobby Jindal's actions against the standards invalidated. 19th Judicial District Court Judge Todd Hernandez granted the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction against the Jindal administration, one day after a lengthy hearing on the matter. Hernandez's ruling prohibits from going into effect an executive order signed by Jindal earlier this summer and opposed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Jindal's order partially suspends the education department's contract with the company that provides testing based on the Common Core standards. In his ruling, Hernandez says, "The Louisiana Constitution is clear: … BESE is a constitutionally created entity with a mandate to supervise and control the public elementary, secondary and special schools in the state." Read the ruling. —Stephanie Riegel

New planning director begins rewriting BR zoning code

The Planning Commission at its meeting Monday night gave Planning Director Frank Duke the green light to begin rewriting several areas of the city-parish zoning code that he believes are problematic—among them, the ordinance that governs the Historic Preservation Commission. Duke, who has been on the job since mid-June, says he's a big supporter of the HPC, which was created to regulate land use in the city's two historic districts and has often found itself in the crosshairs. But he believes the ordinance governing the agency is complicated and convoluted. "This ordinance requires a Certificate of Appropriateness for any change to the exterior of a structure—even if you cannot see what that change is going to do from the street," he says. "If you can't see it, it shouldn't be that big of a deal." Duke says he would like to simplify the HPC ordinance in order to make it easier for neighborhoods to become historic districts. At Monday's meeting, Duke also got approval to begin tackling several other troublesome ordinances, including one that requires property owners applying for historic status take out a quarter-page newspaper ad and another that requires a property owner to wait a full year before bringing a proposed zoning change request to the Metro Council that was previously denied. "Why should the property have to sit idle for a year?" he says. "If a property owner can sign a contract with someone else to do something significantly different, then why shouldn't they be able to move forward?" Now that Duke has the commission's approval, the planning department staff will begin drafting proposed revisions that will eventually be brought to both the Planning Commission and the Metro Council for approval. —Stephanie Riegel

Developers say reducing Government Street to three lanes won't hurt Mid City businesses

Laurence Lambert with Stantec, a development firm working with the city-parish and state to reduce Government Street from four to three lanes, told a group of Mid City business owners today that the project won't decrease the number of cars that drive by their businesses. Initial studies show that more cars may use the road because it will be more "user friendly," Lambert told a meeting of the Mid City Merchants this morning. "It's going to be easier to get in and out of your businesses," Lambert said. Lambert compared Government to a slalom ski course, with drivers rapidly changing lanes to avoid being stuck behind turning vehicles. Once Government has a turning lane and dedicated left turn lanes, Lambert said, drivers will be able to focus more on the businesses around them. Lambert said the goal is to finish designing the project by the end of the year and complete construction by the end of 2015. —Kelly Connelly

Mid City business owners plan area improvements

An outdoor stage, green space and splash pad are in the works for the unused triangular-shaped median on Eugene Street between Boudreaux's Catering and Baton Rouge Magnet High School. The Mid City Merchants are pushing the project. Community Development Committee Chairman Coleman Brown said at a meeting this morning that the project will complement the state's plans to slim Government Street to three lanes. Brown said the area, which may be called Mid City Plaza, is projected to be 14,000 square feet. The group is also pushing several other projects, including returning Main Street and North Street to two-way roads east of Interstate 110; establishing a pedestrian crosswalk, similar to the golf cart crossing at Webb Park, where Capital Heights Avenue crosses North Foster Drive; constructing a roundabout at the intersection of Lobdell Avenue, Independence Boulevard and Government Street; and widening the entirety of Airline Highway from four to six lanes. Most of the Airline project isn't in the Mid City area, but that doesn't mean the group should ignore the initiative, Brown said. "I think we need to look at what happens in the districts near us. If they start to have problems, then that affects us some kind of way," Brown said. These projects accompany the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority's efforts to revamp the blighted area surrounding the old Entergy site at 1509 Government St. and the Ardendale development. See one potential design of Mid City Plaza, and a second design option being considered. —Kelly Connelly

Metro Council to take up Time Out Lounge rezoning request Wednesday

Despite a unanimous vote by the Planning Commission on Monday evening to reject a rezoning request from owners of the Time Out Lounge to allow for the opening of a bar at 3180 Valley St., the Metro Council on Wednesday will take up the issue at its regular zoning meeting. Normally, a request that is unanimously rejected by the Planning Commission would not appear before the Metro Council, says Council Administrator Casey Cashio. However, a technicality has given the prospective bar owners another shot at having the rezoning request granted. Cashio confirms that since the issue was introduced, advertised and placed on the Metro Council zoning agenda prior to Monday evening's vote by the Planning Commission, which initially deferred the issue in late July, it will be heard Wednesday. However, because of the Planning Commission's unanimous vote against the measure, it will need to be approved by 8 of the council's 12 members for passage. Normally, a simple majority vote would suffice. The Southside Civic Association is opposed to the idea of the bar opening at the currently-vacant Valley Street site, which is located just off Perkins Road between College Drive and Stanford Avenue. The Time Out Lounge has been displaced since a fire destroyed its former Old Hammond Highway location in December 2013. Reached this afternoon, Time Out Lounge owner Kathleen Byers declined comment. The Metro Council zoning meeting begins at 4 p.m. on the third floor of City Hall, 222 St. Louis St. See the full agenda. —Steve Sanoski

Cook: Louisiana Culinary Institute buys office warehouse

Event Holdings LLC, an affiliate of the Louisiana Culinary Institute, has purchased an office warehouse on a 1 acre site at the corner of Jefferson Highway and Arnold Road. The seller, Topaz of Louisiana Inc., was represented by Scot Guidry of Mike Falgoust & Associates Commercial Real Estate. The culinary institute was represented by Bobby Smith of NAI/Latter & Blum. Topaz was an industrial pipe line contractor and had occupied the building since 1977 when it was constructed for their use. "In 1977 there was very little other development around the building but as the city grew up around it the building began to have more of an upscale potential," Guidry explains. The property is zoned C-2 commercial and includes about 8,500 square feet, of which 2,500 square feet is office space and 6,000 square feet is warehouse. The sale closed for $722,500, or about $90 per square foot. "I don't think we would have gotten $90 per square foot if the building were located inside an industrial park like the Industriplex or Cloverland, but the fact that it had upside potential and being located at the intersection of Arnold and Jefferson made it more valuable" Guidry says. The culinary institute has no immediate plans for the building, but purchased it because of its close proximity to the culinary institute at 10550 Airline Hwy.

(Appraiser Tom Cook owns Cook Moore and Associates. Reach him at 293-7006 or TCook@cookmoore.com.)

Andrews: Changing down payment requirements are good, bad news

Prospective homebuyers recently got a good news-bad news sort of report from Bloomberg. The bad news is that homebuyers are faced with higher down payment requirements to qualify for mortgages these days, delaying the ability for many potential first-time home buyers to own a home. Of course, these higher requirements are somewhat of a return to more traditional lending, and they get us further away from the days of easy money that tanked the housing market. Still, many of us have short-term memories and only remember those "good old days" of no money down. Requiring more of a down payment delays the purchase until buyers have saved the money needed for the loan. But this is also good news in that the pool of mortgages now being generated are of a much higher quality that will generate solid returns to mortgage investors who supply liquidity to lenders. And while this sounds like a better scenario for the big investment guys than the homeowners, we should remember that more quality and more liquidity means a more stable source of funds for homeowners in the future. So if we get upset that homeowners have to save a little longer before purchasing a home, we should also appreciate that it puts us further away from the dark days of the credit crisis and on firm ground going forward.

(Brian Andrews is assistant director of the Real Estate Research Institute at LSU's E.J. Ourso College of Business. His private practice is Andrews Commercial Real Estate Services, and he can be reached at brian.andrews@acresllc.com.)

Commencement for first-ever Home Builders Institute in BR is Friday

A new program aimed at teaching construction skills to area 18- to 24-year-olds who are disadvantaged, have not finished high school or do not have basic skills, will graduate its first class on Friday. Commencement exercises for the first-ever Home Builders Institute, which the Mayor's Office of Community Development is partnering with the Capital Region Builders Foundation to present, will take place at 10 a.m. Friday at the Family and Youth Service Center, 1120 Government St. The institute provides Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training curriculum over a 12-week program, including classroom, shop, lab and primary hands-on experience in carpentry, painting, electrical work, plumbing and other skills needed for careers in construction or facilities management. The mayor's office says the institute will now work closely with the Capital Region Builders Association to assist the program graduates in finding jobs in the industry. The Mayor's Office of Community Development is providing $350,000 for the initial program via a Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the mayor's office says the program has been so successful that the community development office is proposing to provide another $500,000 in CDBG funds to operate it for another full year. —Steve Sanoski

La. attorney general sues State Farm over auto repairs

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed a lawsuit today against State Farm, alleging Louisiana's largest auto insurer is illegally steering customers involved in car accidents to repair shops that use junkyard parts and choose cheap fixes over safety. The Associated Press reports the lawsuit, filed in state district court in Baton Rouge, accuses the insurance company of violating Louisiana's unfair trade practices act with a systematic effort to lower its costs at the expense of its customers. Caldwell says his office's investigation started in March after receiving complaints from around the state about shoddy repair work. He said his office has found hundreds of violations. "We rely on our insurance companies to guide and direct us and hold our hands through the stressful process of an auto accident. ... But as our investigation has uncovered and our petition alleges, what happens next is often not in the best interests of consumers," says Stacie Lambert deBlieux, an assistant attorney general. State Farm spokesman Phil Supple says the Illinois-based company, which insures one-third of all Louisiana drivers, still was combing through the lawsuit's accusations. "The description in this lawsuit is not in line with State Farm's mission to serve the needs of its customers, and our long, proud history of achievements in advancing vehicle safety," he says in a statement. The lawsuit alleges that State Farm makes customers believe they can't choose where they get their vehicles repaired and directs people to repair shops that have agreements with the insurer to fix the car as cheaply as possible. Read the full story.

Atlanta company to invest $41.5M in West Monroe paper mill

Graphic Packaging International Inc. will spend $41.5 million in its paper mill in West Monroe to upgrade production machinery, company officials and Gov. Bobby Jindal jointly announced today. Today's announcement comes after the Atlanta-based company announced an $8.6 million enhancement and expansion of its consumer carton production in June 2012. That project created 47 new direct jobs and retained another 456 existing jobs at the company's carton sites, according to Louisiana Economic Development estimates. It also enabled the company to quadruple container production at the consumer carton plant and introduce new packaging for beverage product lines that saved 15,000 tons of paper annually and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 32%. LED says the investment announced today will retain a total of 1,340 employees at the company's three Louisiana sites. The state is providing Graphic Packaging an incentive package for its latest investment that includes a $720,000 Modernization Tax Credit, to be claimed over five years. Graphic Packaging also is expected to utilize the state's Industrial Tax Exemption Program. "We weighed many factors in our decision to further invest in the West Monroe Mill," says Graphic Packaging Vice President and Resident Manager Tony Hobson in a prepared statement. "The state's pro-business environment and the exceptional workforce made a significant impact. The partnership between Graphic Packaging International and Louisiana is an enduring example of how to attract, retain and grow business." LED has more details on today's announcement. —Steve Sanoski

News roundup: Walk-On's makes three new hires in preparation for franchising push … New site for La. employers, job-seekers launches … Jindal supports reversal of Edmonson pension boost

On the roster: Walk-On's Enterprises, the Baton Rouge-based owner and operator of Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar and Happy's Irish Pub, has made three new additions to its corporate support team as it prepares to launch a franchising initiative for the Walk-On's concept, the company announced today. Craig Schlick is the company's new vice president of development; Mike Turner is vice president of culinary training; and Shauna Reader is the director of training. Walk-On's says it will officially announce its franchising strategy by the end of the year.

Click by click: Since launching on Monday, LouisianaJobConnection.com has already been used by more than 600 employers and 700 job seekers in the state, says Louisiana Economic Development. The free website, which debuted in June for employers, automatically matches job seekers with jobs for which they are most qualified. The site is open to job seekers across a wide variety of industries, and it is open to all those seeking work, regardless of current residency or education level. LED has more details.

Upon closer review: Gov. Bobby Jindal believes the last-minute passage of a pension hike for his state police superintendent, Col. Mike Edmonson, was improperly handled, according to the governor's office. Jindal spokesman Mike Reed tells The Associated Press the governor will support efforts to reverse the law change in the next legislative session. Reed says while Jindal knew the change helped Edmonson, he didn't realize the legislation only affected two people when he signed it into law. The change, which carries a $300,000 price tag over five years, has drawn significant criticism as a backroom deal for a political insider. Edmonson has said he won't take the increase.
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