RICHMOND, Va. — Moments after viewing a marble statue of President George Washington in the Virginia State Capitol that Thomas Jefferson built, a Baton Rouge group watched an ebullient Aneesh Chopra dart across a General Assembly meeting room while he addressed the group, his speech racing faster than his feet.
Chopra, the secretary of technology for Virginia, chronicled the method by which Virginia landed a $500 million Rolls-Royce Plc aerospace engine plant last year, a method that eschewed traditional up-front cash incentives.
Rather than offer one-time cash, Virginia outlined a blueprint by which it would help the British company build its revenues consistently in the future. The state’s General Assembly would invest $40 million in Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University faculty members who would be dedicated to improving Rolls-Royce’s productivity and financial performance.
“That was absolutely critical to landing the deal,” Chopra said.
Technology, research, know-how, collaboration and old-fashioned perseverance were common themes in a three-day traveling workshop completed Tuesday by 140 Baton Rouge leaders who journeyed to Richmond to learn how lessons there might be applied back home for a better quality of life.
By day’s end, participants in the 2009 Canvas Workshop — some of whom had traveled on previous trips to Nashville, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Portland, Ore. — aired an abundance of ideas for building Baton Rouge. Nearly 40 percent were first-time participants on the trip sponsored by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the city-parish, with the delegates paying their own way.
The question of the day and perhaps the decade for the group might be: So what, now? Many had answers.
Bobby Welch, headmaster of The Dunham School, said he will work much more closely with public, private, parochial and charter school leaders.
“I’m going to go back to communicate and collaborate with them with the understanding that a rising tide raises all ships,” he said.
Shortly after the group heard Richmond leaders talk about their “Richmond: Easy to Love” branding campaign, Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas found a Baton Rouge parallel.
“Mayor Holden talks about the next great American city: What is that?” she asked, proposing that an upcoming update to the East Baton Rouge Parish land-use plan, called the Horizon Plan, will give residents a chance to enact the values they prize most. “We’re going to hire the best consultants in the nation, we hope, and we’re going to do the things in this plan, and we’re going to be better than Richmond and Raleigh.”
Metro Councilmember Trae Welch said he told a Sacramento, Calif., friend about the Richmond trip and his friend said, “So what? How is your life going to be any different because you went there?”
Stumped, Welch continued listening. “Information minus application leads to fascination,” his friend said. “Information plus application leads to transformation.”
Welch told the trip members, “Let’s not let this just be good ideas. We literally have the opportunity to transform our lives and the lives of those around us.”
Tiger District owner Jared Loftus moved to Baton Rouge as a young adult to open his business. He drew a distinction between the younger-than-40 crowd that includes him and the older-than-40 crowd.
“Let’s use your money and our energy and make this thing work,” Loftus said.
Philanthropist John Noland proposed an institutional solution to ongoing problems of race and class that divide Baton Rouge and inhibit progress.
“I think the divide is much greater in Baton Rouge (than Richmond),” he said.
Jones Walker attorney Christopher Tyson agreed.
“We’ve got to find a way for everyone to talk about these race and class issues,” he said, “which is what we’re talking about when we talk about education, which is what we’re talking about when we talk about mass transit, which is what we’re talking about when we talk about downtown.”
Among those gung-ho for solutions was commercial real estate broker George Kurz.
“Get going with it instead of study, study, study,” he urged.
But Richmond’s Jack Berry, who heads the city’s convention and visitors bureau, told a cautionary tale of haste. In 2001, as Richmond prepared to roll out its “Easy to Love” brand, Berry and his brethren discovered the horrible news — eight days before the launch — that the tagline was in use already by Minnesota’s economic development department. They spent three days tracking down Minnesota’s lieutenant governor in the Arkansas Ozarks, where he was vacationing, before they got permission to go ahead with a campaign that had cost $250,000 at that point.
The lesson learned, Berry said, is do your research and protect your identity.
The perseverance of Richmond leaders cropped up frequently. After 12 years of public partnerships and private financing to develop the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, Richmond landed a $450 million Philip Morris USA research center in 2005, then the largest private-sector investment in city history.
That facility came online after Richmond lost a publicly traded technology company to Denver. That firm moved away because it had ventured to Boston to find sufficient startup money, and the venture capitalists dictated that Denver would benefit the company more.
The biotechnology park replaced a neighborhood gutted by the construction of Interstate 95 some 50 years ago. Redeveloping remaining historic neighborhoods derived largely from the persistence of a private citizen who called the Local Initiatives Support Corp. in New York and demanded that they build public and affordable housing in Richmond. Thousands of new residences resulted from that one woman’s call, said Greta Harris, the Richmond vice president of LISC.
“You have to make hard choices,” Harris said, pointing out that the city’s Neighborhoods in Bloom program chooses to work in six neighborhoods at a time for greater impact rather than diluting its resources throughout the dozens of eligible neighborhoods.
Despite losing some battles, Richmond closed 2008 with $2 billion in downtown capital investment completed that year or under way.
Uncommon leadership and diligence account for much of what raises Richmond’s profile, said Jamie Griffin, the director of development for Baton Rouge-based Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers. And there’s no reason Baton Rouge residents can’t adopt the credo told to Trae Welch: information plus application leads to transformation.
“They own who they are,” Griffin said. “I’m going to spend my time in the community not only working on the things that are important to me, but working on the things where we can win and win and win and be that example that Richmond can see when they come to visit us in 10 years.”
Organizers of the 2009 Canvas Workshop collected the single-best ideas from the 140 participants and will compile them for just such an application, said Julio Melara, the trip chairman who’s also president of the Business Report and publisher of 225 magazine.
In Baton Rouge cemeteries, there lay the remains of too many people who had dreamed of something better but too often didn’t pursue it, he said.
“My dream is that we don’t let that happen to us,” Melara said, “that we take these inputs and concerns and we move forward.”