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Tale of Two Cities

The City of Jackson can create a successful revitalization program in its central business district just like the one now shared by neighboring Baton Rouge, La., and East Baton Rouge parish.

More than 60 Jackson area business and civic leaders heard that message often last week, spending parts of two days in the Louisiana capital, admiring the progress in person and seeking ideas for creation and implementation of a similar program.

“They’ve really got their act together,” Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners and coordinator of the trip, admitted. “It was an eye-opening experience for us. All of us were impressed with the quality and depth of their success. And we couldn’t have been more pleased with their openness and willingness to share each step of their progress.”

The Jackson group spent four hours on a Capitol Park Trolley touring arts and entertainment facilities, museums, residential developments, the River Center convention complex, mixed-use projects, the Old Governor’s Mansion and historic neighborhoods, then moved inside to the Old State Capitol for educational sessions on how the diversified progress was achieved.

Often they heard speakers say essentially the same thing.

Utilization of a charrette, an intensive and inclusive planning session, to create components of a comprehensive master plan launched the complex project that was essentially void of special interests and personal agendas. The willingness of a broad cross-section of people, foundations, businesses, industries and organizations to buy into the project was critical. Identification of funding sources and mechanisms led to development of countless public-private partnerships. And a steady stream of information kept all players — and naysayers — aware of achievements.

To date, investments totaling $2.36 billion have been completed; $1.04 billion through public work, $1.32 billion through private development. Another $1.46 billion remains under construction with even more on the future planning schedule.

“There is no reason you can’t do that, too,” Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Walker told the group. “There is no reason you can’t be better than anywhere else. You just have to have the courage to support downtown, to understand what an economic driver your downtown is to the entire area. And then you must determine what is best for your people.”

Named one of the country’s top 100 mega cities by the Brookings Institute recently, Baton Rouge’s success story shows 1,300 net new jobs from May 2008 to May 2009 with an unemployment rate of 6.1 percent in difficult economic times.

It has consolidated state offices and services that were scattered across the city into a governmental corridor that created two million square feet of Class A office space, brought 3,000 workers downtown and is saving millions of rent and lease dollars. It has embraced a design style that respects the capitol’s influence, maintains a park-like setting and welcomes public utilization. It has snatched a historic hotel from demolition. It has built an award-winning arts center and state museum. It has developed public-private partnerships that are developing residential lofts, transforming old buildings into multi-use facilities, utilizing new ordinances, regulations and zoning restrictions and modernizing stately neighborhoods like Spanish Town and Beauregard Town that were facing decay.

It pushed construction of a $110-million state courthouse away from the suburbs into a downtown site, has started work on the first phase of Town Square on the Mississippi River, houses pedestrian-friendly facilities like a Main Street farmers’ market, full-service YMCA and retail outlets on the bottom floors of state parking decks. It encourages citizens to come or stay downtown through an active series of events that has also expanded the bar and restaurant base.

And it continues to develop its River Center convention complex while maintaining the core of financial institutions, beautiful “first” churches and easy access to important places like the Old State Capitol and Old Governor’s Mansion

Significant projects underway will include building more office and residential space, converting some downtown streets from one-way to two-way to improve traffic flow and making downtown gateway improvements that define entrances and exits to the central business district better.

“We want to make significant changes in our lifetime,” Mayor-President Melvin “Kip” Holden, the project catalyst who was recently re-elected with 72 percent of the vote, admitted. “I think we’re watching something like this take place across the country. People are creating one voice for their communities because they don’t want someone else determining the future.”

Critical to continued Baton Rouge progress is the upcoming second attempt to pass a bond issue that will approach $1 billion and provide funding sufficient to push forward. Barely defeated in the recent election, Holden expects passage this time primarily because of an energized effort by younger voters.

“They’re working hard to make certain all sorts of interest groups understand what we’re trying to do,” the mayor explained. “They’re talking with their friends, working their social networks. and I believe, come election time, we’re going to have a blitz like no one has ever seen in our lifetime.”

Davis Rhorer, executive director of Downtown Development District for Baton Rouge, coordinated the two-day tour, assembling a blue chip panel of speakers familiar with all components of the ongoing plan.

“We know the importance of trips like this,” Rhorer admitted. “We made several of them. That’s how we got started. We’ve learned a lot and got many ideas because people shared with us. You’re the first group to come see us, so now it’s our time to help and we will.

“I’m impressed,” he continued, “with the quality of people you have brought here. I see their passion and I hear it in their questions. It’s obvious they want to make a different in the quality of life in Jackson and that there are a number of champions in your group. There are a lot of similarities between our two cities and I believe you can learn from our experiences. We’ll do everything we can to help.”

That Jackson visitors were impressed was obvious.

“Baton Rouge seems to be where Jackson could be in a relatively short time,” Julie Skipper, development officer for the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, said. “Their downtown has taken off in the past four to five years and is a great example for us.

“Seeing how key it is to build partnerships and making sure the entire area understands the importance of the downtown made an impression on me.

“Trips like this,” she continued, noting she lives, works and plays downtown, “help us focus and we’re beginning to see all sectors coming together in Jackson. That’s exciting.”

Warren Bowen, director of construction for Watkins Development, also admitted surprise at the quick Baton Rouge turnaround, suggesting “it makes our dream seem more doable.”

He made special mention of the blending of historic and modern accommodations, then suggested similar success seems possible in Jackson.

“Without a doubt,” Bowen said, “we can do it here. In fact, I think we can go a step above their work. Baton Rouge has plenty of competition as a Louisiana city that we, as the largest and most active city in Mississippi, don’t have. We can go beyond what has occurred there.”

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