Photo by Quinn Welsch
By Quinn Welsch
West Baton Rouge Parish put its best foot forward last week in an effort to attract interest from regional investors.
Parish planners, leaders and business owners toured West Baton Rouge between La. Hwy. 1 and La. Hwy. 415 on Thursday, Oct. 20, hitting the highlights in each part of the parish and what it has to offer investors.
The purpose of the tour was to get as many investors in the Greater Baton Rouge area as possible to see the potential the parish has to offer, said West Baton Rouge Chamber Director Jamie Hanks.
Home to major highways, railroad tracks, the Intracoastal Canal and the Mississippi River, West Baton Rouge has long been a great choice for industry, dating back to the heydey of the sugar industry. But now, the chamber wants to see more retail, especially as the parish becomes an increasingly popular area to live in.
“We wanted to formally introduce developers to this parish,” said Hampton Obier, the Chamber Board president-elect and the event organizer. “Optimism is growing. People want more quality of life; enriching places that blend retail [and residential].”
Much of the investment tour was shaped by the West Baton Rouge Parish Planning Department’s most recent update to its master plan, which maps out the the future needs in the parish, such as additional roads and mixed use residential and retail zoning.
If the parish is going to accommodate more retail, it needs more rooftops, Hanks said.
West Baton Rouge Parish anticipates its building permits in 2016 to reach about 200, which is just 20 permits shy of its 2006 record of 220, shortly after Hurricane Katrina brought a record number of people north from New Orleans.
There are a few stumbling blocks though..
At the top of the list is traffic. The lack of transportation infrastructure is a looming negative that hangs over every aspect of life in the parish.
Local developer Rawlston Phillips, III, said he is waiting to see what happens with traffic before he begins his next venture, the Riverview development on River Road, just south of the Intracoastal Canal crossing. The development would combine residential apartments, retail and recreation (including a river amphitheater overlooking Tiger Stadium). The idea is to create an environment similar to Baton Rouge’s Perkins Rowe, he said.
Plans for the development could take shape within a few years, but Phillips said he and his family aren’t rushing anything just yet.
“We need infrastructure big time,” Phillips said. “When the pipeline really starts to happen, there will be a significant strain.”
Another issue to work with is the changing demographics.
Although West Baton Rouge is traditionally a rural parish, removed from the city lights in the capital, the workforce’s latest generation is more fond of dense urban environments with walkable neighborhoods, Obier said. This is contrary to the Generation X-ers who, generally speaking, want to live in homes that are more rural and private, Obier said.
“West Baton Rouge used to be very rural, but it’s in the process of changing,” Phillips said.
That rural setting is also what gives the parish an unusual topographic layout.
Usable land in the parish is sandwiched between rural acreage and wetlands to the west and the Mississippi River to the east. Land in the northern part of the parish is already accounted for as industrial with large buffer zones, leaving a long rectangular shape of developable land that runs the length of La. Hwy. 1.
Investors want “rings” to maximize their outreach, not rectangles, Phillips said.
This rectangular area was the main attraction for the tour. Numbering a few dozen, the group of investors started the tour with an introduction to the local culture and history at the West Baton Rouge Museum and then loaded onto a bus and continued southward, making the occasional stop to get a view of available acreage and to hear a pitch as to why it was a good investment.
The Village, an up-and-coming strip mall in between the Casa Loma Plaza and Walmart was one such location. The location has a CC’s Coffee House slated, which marketers were initially cautious about due its location on the river, said Justin Langlois, a leasing agent for The Village.
“They’re going to come here and realize how busy they’re going to be,” he said.
The tour made several other stops at places such as the old Cinclare Sugar Mill (a newly named cultural district), the newly paved Brusly levee walking trail and the upcoming hotels on La. Hwy. 415.
The tour also highlighted the West Baton Rouge’s School District – touted as a major economic boon for local business – and included a presentation from the Brusly High robotics club.
“We’re doing a great job for our kids and we have a lot of opportunity to put them in the hands of great employers,” said West Baton Rouge instruction strategist coordinator Mary Wilson Arrasmith to the group of investors at Brusly High School.
The school system often works closely with the nearby industrial employers to help train and educate students for the workforce. The robotics club, for instance, is sponsored by and receives mentors from the nearby Dow Chemical Company.
Dow itself is in the middle of a $1.6 billion construction project for three new facilities in in the area that will make the it the largest concentration of facilities in the Dow corporation, said company spokesperson Stacy Chiasson.
The location on the West Side is currently circulating about 8,500 workers in the area due to the construction projects and the current turnaround at the plants, Chiasson said. While this is contributing to the current traffic issues, it is also contributing to the demand in housing and retail.
“More so than ever, the young engineers are residing on this side,” she said. “They like the schools, they want to stay on this side of the river and the retail is getting better.”
The parish had an estimated $352 million potential for retail development, according to a market profile from ESRI data, which is based on available consumer info. A total of $224 million was spent on retail in West Baton Rouge in 2015, according to the same data. About $28 million was spent on “food-away-from-home” (or dining out).
Yet, West Baton Rouge residents spend as much as 90 percent of their disposable income outside of the parish, Obier said.
Considering the tour was the first of its kind, both Hanks and Obier said the tour was a success in getting as many investors as possible under the same roof to hear the same message in West Baton Rouge.
“For our first one, I don’t know how it could have been any better,” Hanks said.