Twelve years ago, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation tried what it thought was an unconventional move. Anxious to jump-start the downtown area, the foundation convened community and political leaders to devise a strategy for reclaiming the area where our city was born.
More than $2 billion has been invested in public and private ventures since then. State employees who work in a consolidated Art Deco campus now remain after hours to enjoy concerts in the evening. A farmers market offers seasonal produce to thousands on Saturdays. The $55 million Shaw Center for the Arts, built in part by foundation donors, is busy with children at summer camps and grown-ups listening to music at the Manship Theatre. On weekends, a dozen restaurants and clubs are full late into the night. A taxpayer-funded town square is the latest success.
When the foundation took on the downtown project, the board knew we were taking a chance by advancing into the public arena. And we have had the occasional failure. A $250 million riverfront attraction created by the foundation and offered to Baton Rouge by the mayor was rejected by voters.
But our successes in the public space have proven that substantial gains can be made quickly on behalf of the communities we serve. Our master planning of an inner-city neighborhood is one of the reasons people are returning to live in communities between downtown and Louisiana State University. From that effort, the foundation partnered with local government to create the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, which quickly won $60 million in tax credits to underwrite developments in underserved areas. At the urging of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and state leaders, the foundation created The Water Institute of the Gulf, an independent nonprofit that that will provide the necessary science to take on the double threat posed by rising waters and vanishing lands on deltas in Louisiana and around the world.
During the “Leadership at the Edge: Do You Have the Stomach For It?”session at the Council on Foundations Fall Conference for Community Foundations, I will be joined by representative of two other foundations to discuss the peril and promise at the intersection of philanthropy and public policy. I hope to see you there.
Mukul Verma is director of communications at the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.