Dig Baton Rouge

Talking Priorities

By Nick BeJeaux

“I think the priorities of Baton Rouge and other cities like it across the country mandate the redevelopment of areas that have gone in the ditch.”

By the end of 2015 the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority– which works to restore abandoned and divested areas across the parish –will be stone cold broke, leaving the fate of several future development projects in the wind.

The RDA’s Board of Commissioners announced on Monday that they will petition the Metropolitan Council for a $3 million slice of this year’s budget to sustain its operation after a unanimous vote. The RDA has been in existence for almost six years, but Chairman John Noland said he hopes that the community will recognize its value and give it the public financial support it needs.

“I think it’s important for the work of the RDA be spread before the community and determine whether the community has an appetite to pay for and support and support the work we do,” he said during the Oct. 13 meeting. “I think the priorities of Baton Rouge and other cities like it across the country mandate the redevelopment of areas that have gone in the ditch; We have a lot of places in Baton Rouge that have gone in the ditch. For too long we have allowed affordable housing to be substandard housing and that, in my view, is not helpful to our community at all.”

The RDA’s major sources of funding are one-time grants, parts of federal funding and city-parish or state grants, and in the past, they’ve gotten huge chunks of change from these sources. Just in 2009, the RDA received $60 million from New Market Tax Credits. However, they have been denied NMTCs three times since then, and expensive acquisitions and projects like the Government Street Entergy Building and the redevelopment of Smiley Heights, now known as Ardendale, have eaten up the RDA’s coffers.

According to Executive Director Walter Monsour, the RDA’s funding will be become insufficient in the first quarter of 2016; the $1.3 million it’s currently annually operating on will not be enough to keep the lights on and manage its redevelopment of the city’s blighted areas. He said the RDA would need dedicated public funding $3 million that would be split right down the middle to cover operating and programming costs after 2015. If that doesn’t happen, the Government Street and Ardendale projects will have to be put on hold.

“We made the case in 2007 how valuable the RDA is to Baton Rouge,” said Monsour. “What we have been able to produce during our time, particularly compared to other cities’ RDAs, has been, in my opinion, above the curve. We based ourselves off of successful models and made them better.”

“This will be a battle of priorities and this [the RDA] is a priority that has not yet risen to that level yet or hasn’t been recognized. To that extent, the community needs to speak up and say whether or not this is how they want to spend their money.”

According to Noland, Mayor Kip Holden has been asked to help support the RDA in its search for dedicated funding from the City-Parish, but Holden adamantly refused.

“He has refused to contribute one red cent,” said Noland. “He told me that he has bridges that are fifty years old and rotting, that there are bigger things to worry about. His priorities are elsewhere.”

DIG was unable to contact Holden before deadline. However, he has publicly criticized the RDA’s decision to ask the City-Parish government for funding.

“We are building the foundation to take the city to the next level,” Holden told the Business Report. “We are working. He’s walking around with his hands out,” Holden says. “My hands are dirty from working. His hands are clean.”

At least eight votes on the Metro-Council are required to amend the city-parish’s budget – which, by the way, is proposed by the Mayor-President. Holden also said he intends to lobby against the proposal when it is brought before the council.

If dedicated public funding cannot be secured by the RDA, both Noland and Mansour said another solution would be philanthropic donations from locally-based corporations who benefit from redevelopment projects

“A good model for that is CPEX [the Center for Planning Excellence],” said Noland. “They receive a healthy chunk of their budget, I think a fourth, from philanthropic donations. The RDA will eventually flush out a plan of resources including donations.”

But even with a Plan B in place, Monsour is certain that having the support of the local government is crucial to the RDA’s future success.

“I have yet to see one company in this community that will put up money if the local government does not,” he said. “In order to be able to court those corporate funds, we have to show that we have the buy-in by the authority that can make things happen.”

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