Alliance for Positive Growth Meets With Baton Rouge Growth Coalition, Local Elected Officials
By Kerri Cooke
On Oct. 9, members of the Alliance for Positive Growth and local elected officials met with Larry Bankston, director of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition, and Jeff Cook, an executive director of the organization, to gain insight into how to better introduce change and growth to the Lake Area.
Most citizens have no idea what’s involved in the decision-making processes of governing bodies. We elect officials, and then complain when things do not get done fast enough or go the way we think they should.
However, if this meeting is any indication of how dedicated local officials are to making the best decisions for the citizens of Southwest Louisiana, then we have nothing to worry about. Residents can rest assured that a very informed decision will be made on any issue that makes it onto the local governments’ desks.
Lake Charles mayor Nic Hunter, Sulphur mayor Chris Duncan, DeQuincy mayor Lawrence Henagan, Vinton mayor Kenny Stinson, Westlake mayor Bob Hardey, Calcasieu Parish administrator Bryan Beam and Chamber SWLA/SWLA Economic Development Alliance CEO George Swift, were in attendance to gain insight on issues that Baton Rouge has successfully taken on — such as drainage, development and beautification of city areas.
The Alliance for Positive Growth was created as a way to open the channels of communication between government officials and local businesses, with the goal of creating regulations that benefit and work best for everyone involved.
The Baton Rouge Growth Coalition has been doing this for East Baton Rouge Parish for almost 20 years. They began with a group of homebuilders who wanted to be better informed about what was going on at the local government level regarding regulations pertaining to their business. They wanted to have more input into issues that affected their way of living.
Bankston said that the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition has “morphed into something different than what they originally expected,” but they are involved in a broader way than they ever thought possible with the decision making processes of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Today, the coalition consists of over 100 architects, engineers, bankers and other businesspeople who drive the economy of Baton Rouge. The Coalition has successfully developed relationships with Baton Rouge council members, the zoning board and the mayor.
The goal of the coalition and APG is the same. Both organizations aim to assist the governing bodies as much as they can. Often, politicians do not have a clear understanding of problems in the community because they are not experts in these fields. You can’t make the best decision possible if you don’t have expertise or experience in an area. The reasoning behind this meeting is that if you unite, for instance, the drainage expert with the governing official making decisions, and the two parties exchange ideas, then a better solution is made.
Experts in a field have years of experience, and tend to know what works and what doesn’t. That is a valuable asset to a politician and something they don’t necessarily have in their personal skill set. Politicians aren’t always aware of the potential effects of the decisions they make. A decision might look good on the surface, but not provide the benefits they think it does.
Members of a community get the best results when they work with instead of against each other. Partnerships like the APG and the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition allow members, when they see a problem, to approach local government, bring attention to the issue, and come to an informed decision and a solution to the problem.
A key issue for any city is drainage. It’s important to have a partnership between the parish and individual cities in order to come to a solution.
The example used in this meeting was the idea that all the water that falls in and around Baton Rouge has to find local waterways before it goes out into the Gulf of Mexico, so if Baton Rouge fixes its drainage problem, but the surrounding areas do not fix their problems, then nothing will be accomplished.
The issue of drainage has to be looked at comprehensively across a larger area, taking into account water flow patterns. As Hardey said, “water knows no boundaries,” so when making a decision about water, you have to take into account the unexpected — Hurricane Harvey, for instance.
If every ditch in a parish is cleaned out, but the pathways to get the water into the Gulf are not dealt with, then cleaning the ditches is ineffective. Hunter says he is finding that there are no records of some of the drainage systems in the City of Lake Charles. The city has to go out and survey what kind of systems are in place, so that they know how to create a better plan.
Rapid development is occurring in Southwest Louisiana, and one topic bounced around during the meeting was how certain building regulations need to be uniform across a parish in order to prevent unnecessary confusion and stress for developers and city.
It was noted that developers will tend to put their project in a place that benefits them the most. If regulations are more beneficial for them to build across the street, then that is what they will try to do, regardless of whether it is across a city or parish line.
The bottom line is that it benefits both the developer and the municipality to get a project moving as quickly as possible. Time equals profit and tax dollars. If a city and parish can get different departments to work together on a project, like sewage and drainage, then things go a lot smoother. Teamwork between all the different departments associated with building means a faster result.
Hunter also pointed out that transparency with developers, and developer input, is necessary in regards to regulations. Developers need the assurance that, if they abide by certain rules, things will get done.
A big player in the first step of development is the permitting department. If permitting is handled more efficiently, a project can get off the ground at a much faster rate, and the key to permitting going smoothly is having enough staff.
East Baton Rouge Parish has gone through a metamorphosis when it comes to building permits. It used to take developers up to six months to get a building permit on a house, because the department didn’t have enough staff. They were always losing workers to higher-paying jobs.
Once they raised the salaries of the planning and permitting department staff, things were accomplished in a much shorter time. Today, it takes only about seven days for residential permits, and 21 for commercial permits.
A third idea discussed at the meeting was how to renovate downtown and inner city areas so that they will be more attractive to people passing through. The beautification of Common and Lake Streets was discussed. Ideas, such as green space requirements where an area has to have a level of foliage, and the addition of more bike paths, were discussed.
Green space requirements not only liven up an area, but they also help the drainage.
At the conclusion of the meeting, it was suggested that an ordinance review committee be created, similar to the one in East Baton Rouge Parish, to look at and edit resolutions before they are put in front of governing officials.
Ultimately, compromise is an essential element of governing, and communication between all parties involved in a project is necessary. Input from all sides is a must to prevent mistakes because, as was said by one attendant at the meeting, “once you put it down on paper, it’s hard to rewind.”
The goal is to put experts in the right positions and have them make informed decisions on today’s most pressing issues. This meeting was an important step in doing just that by listening and conversing with those who have ventured down the tricky road of city growth before us.