Special Reports

Downtown Baton Rouge took years to restore

BATON ROUGE, La. —When Fred Taylor bought Poor Boy Lloyd's in the 1980s, he thought the nearby old Capitol House Hotel would re-open soon and boost business for the downtown restaurant.

It didn't happen until 2006, after $70 million had been poured into renovating the hotel built in the 1920s.

"I waited 20 years," Taylor said.

Patience.

If you're looking to revitalize a downtown, don't get in a rush.

With a combination of public and private financing, more than $2 billion has been pumped into bringing Baton Rouge's downtown back to life over 23 years. But in many ways, the fruits of those efforts have only begun to show in the past five or six years.

"These big, dreamer schemes take a long time to get going," said Frank McMains, whose downtown involvement includes being a commercial and residential developer and a bar owner. "It took a long time to kill America's urban cores, and it's taken a long time to bring them back for a variety of reasons."

Louisiana's state capital is carrying out its third downtown revitalization plan since 1987. Millions are being spent on additional projects, including a five-block town square set to break ground this summer.

As Wichita gets ready to break out the draft of its downtown master plan next week, there's good reason to look at what Baton Rouge has done. After all, before Jeff Fluhr became president of Wichita Downtown Development Corp. in 2008, he spent 16 years as the assistant executive director of Baton Rouge's Downtown Development District.

Continuity of leadership, consolidation of state offices, a well capitalized nonprofit foundation, ample use of public funding and even Hurricane Katrina all played a role in getting Baton Rouge's downtown off its death bed.

Weekends are packed

Sitting on the east bank of the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge's 650-acre downtown district has a cozy feel with its narrow streets. Inviting features include ample green space, a bike path atop the river levee and a smattering of fountains for kids — and adults — to splash away on muggy days.

Historic landmarks, such as the old capitol building and former governor's mansion, that once were shuttered have re-opened for the public.

Go to lunch during the week and you'll see folks wearing government I.D. badges, many of them among the 8,000 state employees who work downtown.

Downtown has become a packed house on weekend nights, drawing people with 60 restaurants, 30 bars and a wide mix of live music. Most of those have opened in recent years.

Only about 2,300 people live downtown, and most live in one of two historic neighborhoods on the edge of downtown. The most recent plan, which began in 2008, calls for finding ways to attract more residents.

Now a destination

There are those who say too much emphasis is placed on big-ticket items, that more attention needs to be given to helping small businesses.

To be sure, it hasn't been a swift shot upward.

"I remember when people were saying 'the last person out turn out the lights,' " metro council member Tara Wicker said. "You could literally be at a red light downtown and be the only one there. There were very few businesses downtown.

"It was a ghost town. Downtown was not a place you wanted to be."

She should know. She has lived her entire life in the council district she represents, which includes downtown.

"A few days ago, I'm driving down Third Street and see moms with their babies in strollers and families downtown," Wicker said. "Even several years ago, that would not have been the case. It's been a great turn of events."

Nate Sharon, 27, said downtown didn't feel safe five years ago when he moved to Baton Rouge to work in information technology for the state.

"I'm a big guy and can take care of myself," he said, "but I wouldn't have brought family and friends down here."

On a recent Wednesday evening, as Sharon joined friends for after-work drinks at Punchers, downtown's only sports bar, he said much has changed.

"They've stepped up police," he said. "Plus, there are a lot more people down here. You're better in numbers.

"Overall, it's a positive atmosphere. Just need to get more parking. If you're coming down on the weekend, you'd better carpool."

To encourage more visitors, downtown events are held regularly, including the music-related Alive After Five each Friday during the spring and fall.

"People have to come to see the changes to believe it," said Bradley Bates, a third-generation owner of a men's store, one of the few retail businesses downtown.

He said downtown is now a destination.

"You don't have to pick one place to come eat or drink," Bates said. "You just come and pick one when you're down here."

Continuity of leaders

Change has been pushed along by continuity of downtown leadership.

Davis Rhorer has headed the Downtown Development District since it began in 1987. He's quick to point out that he hasn't done it alone.

Downtown has been rebuilt through the combined efforts of the state, city, a nonprofit foundation and private business. Over the span of the work, investment has been a 50-50 split between private and public funds, but private money has paid for a little more than half over the past 10 years, Rhorer said.

"If there's one message I'd want to leave with Wichita it is that it takes a lot of partners to make things happen," he said.

Rhorer has worked under four mayors, including Kip Holden, who came into office in 2005.

"All the mayors all been supportive," Rhorer said, "but Holden has taken us to another level. He's putting money down here."

Take the town square. Of the $9 million price tag, the city is putting up $4.5 million. The rest is split between a federal grant and state sales tax rebates.

"You have to showcase your downtown because it's a major centerpiece," said Holden.

To find money for projects, he said, "We started to be more creative in financing. We got federal and state earmarks. We took city surplus money. We put it all in a pot to make it happen."

Holden justifies the expense because improvements attract such things as the American Bowling Congress, which he said will have a $100 million impact on the community when it holds its five-month convention and tournament downtown for a second time in 2012.

Holden has also taken his lumps.

A bond election that he strongly supported that included a riverfront development called Alive was defeated twice over the past two November elections. About a fourth of the $900 million in proposed bonds was to go for Alive.

Meanwhile, Baton Rouge remains the only major city on the Mississippi River that doesn't have a riverfront development.

"That's not a designation we want to have," Holden said.

Plans are in the works to change that.

A $680 million River Park, scheduled to be completed in about five years and financed largely by private money, is expected to include office space, hotels, residential, a 10-acre park and 100,000 square feet of entertainment area. Work on an underground passageway from downtown to the development has begun.

Consolidation, foundation helped

Downtown activity was first significantly spurred by consolidation of state offices into a 200-acre park, including nearly a dozen new buildings looking up at the nation's tallest state capitol (34 stories). The state decided building and owning its buildings was cheaper than renting space all over town.

Although the consolidation process took more than 15 years and wasn't completed until 2007, developer and business owner McMains said, "Consolidation saved businesses downtown. A lot more people downtown, a lot of blighted buildings were rehabbed."

Another part of the continuity is the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, a nonprofit established in the 1960s with $530 million in assets. It's funded by the late Wilbur Marvin, a Baton Rouge businessman who was one of the largest strip-mall owners in the Southeast.

The foundation's for-profit side has poured millions into revitalizing downtown.

It paid to bring in smart growth guru Andres Duany to create the 1998 downtown plan, the basis for much of the work being done now. Among the projects to come out of the plan: a $60 million renovation of the Shaw Center for the Arts. The state provided $30 million with the foundation and Louisiana State University, which has its museum in the building, splitting the rest.

Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, said, "Year after year, the foundation has really stayed on top of downtown. They've been the biggest resource to tap into.

"When plans or experts were needed or allies were needed at the state (level), they played a role."

The foundation also got downtown's second hotel up and running.

Until one of Baton Rouge's two riverboat casinos built a hotel in 2000, the town hadn't had a new hotel in 50 years.

Meanwhile, the old Capitol Hotel had sat idle since the 1980s. "A 250,000-square-foot problem," Rhorer said.

The foundation's for-profit side took it on, spending $70 million to renovate the hotel where Louisiana's controversial governor, Huey Long, once set up his state office. Now it's a Hilton property with nearly 300 rooms.

Let's not forget Hurricane Katrina's role in the mix.

When the mammoth storm struck in 2005, New Orleans businesses searched for office space elsewhere. Baton Rouge's downtown leased 300,000 square feet of office space to displaced businesses within a week, Rhorer said.

Many of those businesses decided to expand and keep office space in Baton Rouge.

Boost small business

Baton Rouge's downtown office space is about 90 percent occupied, but developers say more could be done to decrease vacancies. Developer John Schneider, who has invested about $50 million in downtown commercial and residential projects, said it is important that cities do more than help developers with tax incentives.

"None of it works until you get economic commerce — making a profit — and that only comes when space is occupied," Schneider said. "I'd tell Wichita, 'As much as you're striving to get developers to take on projects, the even greater focus needs to be placed on economic incentives to attract retail or office tenants.'''

Schneider said the best incentive would be to offer low-interest loans to small businesses because they have a hard time getting loans where a market hasn't been established, such as in a downtown in the process of being revitalized.

McMains is not only a developer — he also knows about the small business end. His Red Star nightclub opened 10 years ago, making it the oldest continuously operated bar downtown.

Small businesses, he said, are one of the enduring heartbeats of a downtown.

"It's real easy for politicians and people involved in the process to get enthusiastic about big ticket items like a civic center," McMains said. "They're legacy items, things people get to stand in front of and cut a ribbon.

"And those are good. But if you're trying to attract tourist dollars, it's more important to get the local community to buy in first because you can't scam tourists."

He said, "We would have been so much further along right now if 10 percent of the money that was devoted to big-ticket items had been ear-marked for small business revitalization." But activity has picked up enough that Taylor's Poor Boy Lloyd's is now open at nights on the weekends, serving its lemon ice box pie and other homemade food.

"More restaurants down here too," Taylor said. "That's OK because there's also a lot more stuff going on.

"It's just taken time to make it happen."

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