Updated: Nov 12, 2022
BRAC 11th Annual Regional Canvas Benchmarking Workshop in Greenville, South Carolina (GVL)
On a sunrise walk in the crisp Carolina fall breeze, it was whispered,
"How can Baton Rouge Find Our Falls?"
As our group took in the beauty of this catalytic park project in the middle of their Downtown it was clear that we were here on the trip to reignite the flame that the late Davis Rhorer and thousands of others began decades ago. This question really reverberated in my mind on the flight back to BTR as we descended over the mighty (underutilized) Mississippi River. The answer to finding our Falls is - TOGETHER WITH FOCUS & EQUITABLE INTENTION.
As you read the overview below of the 3-day BRAC Canvas trip you will see that ’TOGETHER’ isn’t hippie magical thinking. It is a call to draw inspiration from how GVL was able completely to reignite their downtown in 20 years, diversify their economy, and move Baton Rouge towards collective action for ALL our citizens. Only this will propel US as a city through the hard stuff standing in our own way, to get to the good stuff (note with this last statement I am paraphrasing the wisdom of one Ms. Tyler Litt and many of her fellow leaders on the trip).
For 130 weeks straight our community has been coming together on Fridays via Zoom for the OneRouge call where we Enlight one another around the challenges and solutions for the 9 Drivers of Poverty in our city. Now is the time to Unite & Ignite to build a place people from around the world visit and draw inspiration from - ’TOGETHER’
100+ leaders from BR arrived in GVL mid-morning & went straight to the BMW Performance Center. Have to say, this was a pretty incredible experience and some of us discovered a potential encore career to race cars. But most importantly we learned what the power of public-private partnerships can do for a region.
Baton Rouge is the 67th largest metro in the US, and GVL is 61st. They have a population of 585,000 residents in their county with a projected influx of more than 250,000 more residents over the next decade. GVL is grappling with the challenges this unprecedented growth will have but, wow, what a great problem to have given our EBR's population is shrinking.
For generations, GVL’s tax base was heavily reliant on one industry, textiles. By 1980 their economic development was stagnant, downtown was vacant with only one hotel, and when their high schoolers graduated, promptly left and rarely came back (sound familiar?).
"Greenville Mayor Knox White, who has been in office since 1995, says the city’s transformation from an empty downtown to a 'place where people want to be' was intentional and boils down to a few essential components: reinvention, mixed-use, residential and personality.”
- Deanna B. Narveson (Greater Baton Rouge Business Report)
Between 1982 and 2016, $126 million in public funding was leveraged to get $487 million in private funding for 19 major downtown projects in Greenville. It didn’t take the group long to see the impact of this strategic investment as we passed through a densely redeveloped downtown surrounding our hotel. Pedestrian-centered streetscapes, mixed-use vertical developments, and repurposed city-owned properties into community recreation spaces.
The second day started at 5:30 AM with a morning walk of a downtown landscape, and we back in BR can dream to achieve. Never underestimate the power of wide sidewalks, pervasive street lighting, and quality public art to create a sense of security. We couldn’t stop pointing out the tasteful design of the streetscape and smiling the whole way to breathe inspiration into the day. Note: I’ll avoid the pitfall of pontificating tales about morning exercise, but it is worth noting I did experience my first Hot Yoga class, it was, as promised, a wonderful experience. By 8:30 AM, we were in panels with leaders from GVL and EBR discussing Dynamic Developers, Downtown & PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships), and Inclusive Redevelopment. We then hit the walking trail to take in the beautiful redevelopment of Falls Park ($13M) and the 60-acre Unity Park ($66M) that connects GVL’s downtown with the western neighborhoods of the county. The rest of the day finished off at Project ONE ($130M) for more panels on the Entrepreneurial ecosystem/minority business accelerator, Talent attraction/retention, and Business & education/workforce partnerships. Post panels the evening ended in fellowship over food at the many thriving local restaurants downtown and sharing reflections on what was learned that day. At the conclusion of Day 2, it was clear that when the future of a secondary Southern city’s back is against the wall, the community can galvanize behind an ambitious vision, anything is possible. That is not to say GVL has not had and continues to have its own struggles with socio-economic exclusion, overcoming historic racial tensions, and creating equitable outcomes for all. But they are leaning into it with an acknowledging of the truth to move forward to reconciliation, healing, and transformation. If anyone questions if these challenges are a fact or not in BR it was on full display if you count the number of times we heard ‘Geaux Tigers’ and not ‘Go Jags’ or‘Go Bears’ despite having both chancellors from Southern University and BRCC on the trip. Trust that it did not go unnoticed, we have to do better. There were many lessons the EBR community learned on this trip not just from the leaders from GVL but from one another. I continue to be radically optimistic that with the hard conversations around race and economic disparity front and center on everyone’s minds we will create the momentum necessary to dream bigger and achieve greatness beyond what we ever thought possible.
DAY 3: Safe to say the large majority of the cohort woke up fatigued from 48 hours of learning and networking...possibly a few with heavy heads from the night-time gatherings at the local bars. But after a good breakfast and even better company, everyone was fully engaged as the BR-GVL Young Professional Panel challenged everyone in the room to reimagine the vision for the future of BR to be built for their generation (not just for BoomerX-ers). A broad spectrum of perspectives was shared about their current GVL 2040 plan which stoked many fires in the room around updating our current Plan Baton Rouge to align the Capital Region to fit the needs of future generations.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the three-day trip came during the last hour which became an open mic for BR leaders to inspire one another to do more for the people of our city as well as speak hard truths on equity in our city that needed to be vocalized. The power of people’s personal stories and unfiltered perspectives really brought everyone in the room into unison. So now what? That is exactly what starts on November 28th when all participants on the trip are reconvening. Given that the price tag to attend was $2,500 a piece on the next Canvas trip it would be pretty stellar if an established and prospering company in our city would underwrite 20 scholarship spots to ensure more equitable, multi-generational voices are at the table (rather than later on the menu). Until then and to ensure that the whole community stays involved in this collective action we will be inviting BRAC leadership and several of the attendees to report out on Friday 12/09 during the OneRouge Community Check-In. Only together will innovative solutions emerge, be deployed equitably, and sustain for decades to make Baton Rouge a world-class city. My final note is that the entire Walls Project team is here to meet and partner on equitable community-driven projects that move the city forward. The ideas from the trip won’t mean a thing if not followed by collective action. #LFG - Casey Phillips A special thank you to the team entire BRAC team for orchestrating this gathering of minds and to everyone who took the extra time to hold space together:
Dennis Blunt, David Beach, Adonica Duggan, Edgardo Tenreiro, J. Daniels, Sherreta Harrison & Raymond Jetson, Mayor-President Broome, Dante Bidwell & Marlee Pittman, Jay Gaudet, Trey Nelson, Superintendent Corey Wilson, Eric Dexter, David Mullens, Tyler Litt, Whitney Hoffman Sayal & Casey Tate, Anthony Kimble, Chris Meyer & Brenna Benson Lamb, Representative Vanessa Caston LaFleur, Monica Scott, Rowdy Gaudet, Scott Ritter, LaMont Cole, Erin Lutkewitte-Kilgore, Calvin Mills, Deanna Narveson, Christy Reeves, John Spain, Rachel Deresto, Kelly Bienn, Michael Tipton & Chloe Wiley, Evon Roquemore, President Dennis Shields, Dr. Willie Smith, Mimi Singer Lee, Craig Sweeney, , Catherine Thornton, Shawn Usher, Mohit Vij, Laura Vinsant, Jesse Watson, Achilles Williams, Dyke Nelson, Ashley Arceneaux, Branden Barker, Sarah Barlow, Preston Castille, Trent Bondy, Renee Chatelain and Jonathan Grimes, Helena Cunningham, Rory Denicola, Christina Engle, Sabrina Galloway, Deborah Sternberg, Kismet Gray, Michelle Hardy, John O’Hearin, Jessica McKelvie Kemp, Brian LaFleur, and awesome Walls executive board member Matt Zagotti.
Read More Perspectives from the Canvas trip: