Last week I went to a new coffee shop opened in north Baton Rouge called Southern Grind Cofe Shop. It’s black owned and a bright spot in a dark strip. When I went to the coffee shop, I encountered a dozen or so young black professionals who were either meeting, or grabbing a bite to eat. The business owner was bubbling and happy to serve his customers. I talked to the owner Horacio for a few moments and he told me how he was open for 2 months and only made seventy five cents a day for two months. A new buzz on social media has helped to impact that and he’s happy with the new business and attention they are getting. That conversation hasn’t left me since that day last week.
About the same time I kept reading news report after news report about homicides in my beloved city. Today as it stands we have had 34 homicides in Baton Rouge. At this point last year we had 22. As I thought about the killings, I thought about the walk up at Southern Grind Cofe and I could see the problem head on. Here Mr. Horacio is opening a coffee shop in north Baton Rouge, but the strip he’s opened in looks hopeless. It almost looks abandoned. Because in truth north Baton Rouge and the communities where the most crime happens in our city have been abandoned for some time now. For some the look of the area is a challenge they won’t be able to over come. Sure, I’m going to go back and support his business, because I get it. I understand what he’s after and what the impact of the coffee shop can do for Southern University and the area as a whole. But the problem is, here is a glimmer of hope on a hopeless block. We can and should change that.
The homicides in Baton Rouge won’t be fixed by adding more police to the streets of Baton Rouge. In Iraq and Afghanastan we thought adding more troops would help us end the war. Years later and far too many lives lost on both sides, America is still engaged in a senseless war. Boots on the ground will never stop violence. It will simply shuffle or mask it for a moment.
We know all the facts around the socio economic issues of crime. We know that it is usually the result of failing schools, poor family structure, lack of economic opportunity, all the things we’ve met about, read about, and talked about until we are all tired of it. What we need now are solutions.
The truth is, I should be submitting this as a proposal to city parish for an opportunity to contract, but because we live in a society that believes blacks can’t earn from their ideas if people disagree with our advocacy, I will suggest it here in hopes you will join me in pushing Mayor Broome, our council members, the RDA, and other community partners to make it happen.
Blight to Bright is the concept. It’s simple. The mayor amends the budget and allocates $1 million dollars toward a campaign to restore 5 to 10 blighted properties in north Baton Rouge. Starting with the strip where Southern Grind is.
I’m not a contractor, but I know that if given $100,000 there are contractors in the city of Baton Rouge that can get that strip up to code and marketable. Is there a property owner? I’m sure, but the property is in terrible condition and hindering the overall quality of life in the area of north Baton Rouge it sits in. The same can be said for ten or so other spots in north Baton Rouge. There has to be a way to engage the property owner, and flip the property. This could create new affordable retail or office space in north Baton Rouge which is desperately needed. This doesn’t take six months of meetings and planning. It takes leadership. It takes resources. It takes work.
The contracts should be simple. We will give you x amount to restore this property. Creating a space that is viably appealing and usable for the community. As a condition of the contract, we want contractors to engage young black males in the community for employment and training. These jobs can vary, but create valuable work experience for some of the people who need it most. We take the tax dollars that we invest in bringing this property back into commerce and help create jobs and teach skills at the same time. We can’t realistically expect that every young man or woman can afford to wait to earn money. Many are in desperate situations we can’t imagine and must earn while they learn.
If we continue to allow these young men and women to grow up in communities that are decaying, we can’t expect to produce different results. If the city can’t engage the property owner in this manner, there is a way for a private sector partner to do so. We have to get out of making excuses and cut the red tape and make things happen.
We currently give companies like Georgia Pacific and Exxon huge tax breaks for job creation. We get creative when we want to lure a big company into our back yard. We gave IBM a free building. We incentivized every hotel in downtown Baton Rouge with a TIFF which is a massive tax break. We have literally funded companies hundreds of thousands of dollars to study issues like crime and parking. Yes, we spent major money on parking studies. When we all know, if we create jobs we can solve many of our crime issues.
If Horacio was bold enough to open a coffee shop in north Baton Rouge in an area that looks horrible, as a small contribution of hope. We should build on that. We should seize the opportunity to make sure that his business doesn’t have to struggle, because we waited for an idea to come from Cincinnati on how we fix Baton Rouge. (Dozens out our cities leaders are in Cincinnati on the Baton Rouge Area Chambers canvas trip right now.) We should just get up and do something. Blight to Bright is one idea. There are hundreds maybe even thousands more in Baton Rouge. Solutions to our problems, that can happen if we get up and do something. We can create jobs this summer that teach skills for young people. We can beautify a corridor near Southern University, and we can reduce crime and hopefully save a life. If we do less talking and more working, we can change things.
Deploying more cops is not going to reduce Baton Rouge’s crime long term. It will only shuffle the deck for a few months. We are losing lives, because we spend too much time and money meeting, and we don’t put our money where it can make the greatest impact. We tried BRAVE, the anti violence initiative that ultimately failed. Because crime can’t be solved by putting more boots on the ground. Crime is solved by addressing root causes of crime. If we are to change Baton Rouge, we can start by changing the block where Southern Grind is in short order. Less talk, more action is the only way we will reduce crime in Baton Rouge.
Email the mayor and council members and encourage them with me to immediately make an investment into revitalizing this block and others. Blight to Bright can happen and lives can be saved from it. Communities won’t be changed because we talked about our problems, they will be changed because our conversations became action plans that lead to the change we all seek.
Email Mayor Sharon Weston Broome at mayor@BRLA.gov
Email Council members at email@example.com