By Leslie D. Rose
“Third Street was the popular street back then. And we’re building now a base of people. I do have now some 140,000 people who come downtown on a daily basis.”
It would be wrong to say Downtown Baton Rouge is thriving like never before. That’s not because downtown isn’t thriving – it almost certainly is, as evidenced by even a short foray into the heart of the Red Stick, where businesses are popping up daily and people roam the streets enjoying the city. The inaccurate part of that initial statement is the “never before” portion, for Baton Rouge’s downtown scene was once the city’s focal point, and after a fall from grace and years of struggling to re-reach that pinnacle, the city center is as strong as it has ever been – and only getting stronger.
This is how life was breathed back into downtown Baton Rouge.
Learning from the Past
Before there were malls in the Capital City, Third Street was the premier place to shop.
And downtown Baton Rouge, then referred to as uptown, was booming with businesses – from several five-and-dime shops, to department stores, hotels, a movie theatre and even an evening hang out for white area youth.
But as time progressed, the city expanded and Third Street became a ghost town.
When the Bon Marche Mall, an open-air center, opened in 1960 on Florida Blvd., well outside the uptown/downtown area, nearly all of the Third Street shops moved to the new attraction, stripping the once popular shopping district. The opening of Cortana Mall, farther down Florida Blvd. put the final nail in Third Street, and incidentally in Bon Marche Mall when JC Penney left for Cortana.
In hopes of restoring downtown, Catfish Town was erected by the Mississippi River. It was quickly a failed attempt at a festival market place which was a popular idea in the 1980’s in mid-sized U.S. cities. It opened in 1984 and within 18 months, was dead, and downtown seemed hopeless, yet again.
Setting the Foundation
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that college students and young professionals began to reconvene on Third Street. It had become populated with bars, but business was slow-coming.
According to Davis Rhorer, Executive Director for Downtown Development District (DDD), revitalization plans began in 1983 with Baton Rouge 2000, a 20-year economic plan for the downtown area which created DDD, a political subdivision of Louisiana.
“The decline of downtown Baton Rouge began with the growth of transportation corridors,” Rhorer said. “First it was in Florida Boulevard, then it was in the I-10 and the I-12 interstate, so you saw a lot of business energy move out along those corridors, not untypical, but there was nothing to keep the downtown intact.”
A Baton Rouge 2000 update occurred in 1987, the first time an implementation plan offered things like stabilization of neighborhoods, governmental consolidation downtown, a convention center hotel and expansion of the River Center. Although much progress had already been made as Rhorer boasts that 80 percent of the 20-year plan was implemented in just eight years.
In 2008, Plan Baton Rouge II was announced. That plan – which is in progress – seeks to introduce residential living downtown.
Rhorer said there are 12 projects underway, including adding more eateries and making changes to the old Capital One building, which will be residential, office and a full-service grocery store – Matherne’s, which will open in January 2015.
“This is huge for residential development,” Rhorer said. “They said we needed grocery and pharmacy. We have the pharmacy and the grocery store is coming. We’re now on the cusps of a 63rd restaurant downtown. We jumped from about 25 restaurants to 40 and now we’re up to 62-63.”
Modernizing as a Social Center
Rhorer also mentioned the creation of North Boulevard Town Square which has become very popular since its ribbon cutting in 2011. It offers a town lawn and very recently added free Wi-Fi. It is also home base for many area events such as the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, Louisiana Earth Day Festival, Live After Five, Sunday in the Park and Baton Rouge’s first-ever New Year’s Eve Celebration – The Red Stick Revelry, which was first held this year.
And there’s The Shaw Center for the Arts, which was proposed in Plan Baton Rouge II as an arts block. Opened in 2005, Rhorer said he’s very proud of the work being done there to attract people back to the downtown area.
And there’s still more to come, and it may mirror its nostalgia more than expected.
“In the 1930’s and 40’s people would basically start their way down one end and continue down shopping – it was kind of the social center,” Rhorer said. “Third Street was the popular street back then. And we’re building now a base of people. I do have now some 140,000 people who come downtown on a daily basis. Once the residential area is built-up, retail will come back.”