Editor’s note: Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the West Baton Rouge Development Corporation’s name change to the West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce. Here’s a glimpse at what has changed, and stayed the same, over the years.
More than thirty years ago, a group of business-minded West Siders formed the West Baton Rouge Development Corporation to sustain and stimulate planned growth on their side of the Mississippi River. Though the name, volunteers and meeting places have changed, the organization’s goal has remained the same: promote West Baton Rouge as a great place to do business.
Babs Babin, the second chairman of the WBR Development Corporation and inaugural board member, said the organization rose out of a need for the business community to connect and discuss projects and legislation.
“West Baton Rouge will soon be an area of growth and expansion if the newly formed West Baton Rouge Development Corporation has its way,” a July 24, 1985 article in the West Side Journal reads.
Bernard Crochet, the owner of Morales AG Grocery, became the first Brusly member of the WBR Development Corporation in August of 1985. At the time, the organization promoted “Grow West” as its motto.
The group grew quickly to 170 members in 1987, just one year after electing Walt Wright as the first chairman. Since then, the number more than doubled to 380 members.
“It started small and grew gradually, and it’s amazing what it became today,” Babin said.
Some things change, but priorities stay the same
A year before rebranding into the West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce, the WBR Development Corporation named land use, transportation and infrastructure improvements as its top priorities. Today’s mission statement of the WBR Chamber states the initial value-driven mission remains the same: to be the voice of business while promoting growth and high quality of life in West Baton Rouge Parish.
A questionnaire conducted by the WBR Development Corporation in 1985 showed many East Baton Rouge residents and businesses knew little about West Baton Rouge Parish. Walker Johnson, a corporation member and co-owner of the Johnson - McGehee Agency, stressed that a primary goal of the corporation should be to publicize the positive aspects of the parish.
In the 1987 Real Estate Report, Wright said businesses looking for a prime location with easy access, competitive land prices, a diverse transportation system, skilled, productive workforce, sound educational system, and strong economic base will find all of that and more in West Baton Rouge.
The groundbreaking of the $45.4 million Exxon plant in June of 1989 served as proof that the West Side was ready for expansion. Several large companies followed the lead and brought new facilities to West Baton Rouge, including Dow, Placid Refinery, and several others.
Today, West Baton Rouge leaders continue to tout the value of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, investments into local education and a strong economy.
In 2016, the chamber hosted the first annual Investment Tour to showcase the potential of the parish to investors in the Greater Baton Rouge area. Last year, the Investment Tour became the state’s first Drone Economic Development Tour.
The organization doesn’t stop at highlighting the parish but works to improve the stumbling blocks of continued growth. Since its inception, the organization has prioritized the need for infrastructure.
“Primary components needed to achieve future orderly development of the parish include the adoption of a land use plan, development of a master transportation plan, and improvements to existing infrastructure,” Karen St. Cyr, Chairman of the Development Corporation said in 1993.
The chamber continues to pave the way for better roads. Last month, members of the WBR Chamber recently joined Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot in vying for House Bill 578, which would appropriate funding to the long overdue LA 1/415 Connector. Monthly Chamber luncheons often feature transportation leaders like the Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson.
Today, the strategic goal of the Community and Regional Development Committee is to “strengthen advocacy efforts and develop partnerships with local and state officials to encourage decision-making that supports growth and fosters an excellent quality of life for all residents of our region.”
Still going, still growing
The WBR Development Corporation began as a group of volunteers and over three decades grew to employ three full-time staff members. The Chamber of Commerce, even at 25-years-old, continues to celebrate many “firsts” thanks to the work and passion of members and volunteers, Executive Director Jamie Hanks said during her annual address.
The award-winning chamber received accreditation from the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Executive Association last year. The West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce is among 13 of the more than 80 chambers in the state to receive this distinction.
Last year, the Board of Directors created the first Strategic Plan, which serves as a road map to the organization’s future. The 2018 Government Affairs Chair Scott Gaudin released the first Legislative Agenda to prioritize West Baton Rouge’s unique objectives during Legislative Sessions.
This year the organization will sponsor the second annual Internship West program, which allows nearly 30 local high school students to explore career options and earn valuable experience in a summer internship.
The official marketing representative of the parish advocates on behalf of the parish by honoring those who work to make it better. The chamber annually honors businesses and individuals making an impact on the community. Awards include Best of Business, Young Professional and Volunteer of the Year. Since 1993, the organization has awarded the annual Pride of West Baton Rouge title to a deserving person or group who embodies the values of West Baton Rouge and works diligently to make it a better place to be.
The Brusly High School Talented Art and Industrial Arts students and teachers Marianne St. Amant and Tyrone Hatter, earned the inaugural award. The group created a life-sized wooden “plantation people” which the Plantation Lights: Christmas on Poplar Grove featured in 1992.
This year the chamber named Brusly Town Clerk Blaine Rabalais, the Pride of West Baton Rouge.
“...Everything we are able to accomplish is through the efforts of many, and the positive impacts to our community can be seen every day from our prideful students to the new developments, and to our steadfast businesses who choose to remain, expand and give back to our parish in countless ways,” Hanks told members in her annual address.