The Baton Rouge Business Report’s Assault On Diversity

Earlier this week Stephanie Riegel, who took over as the editor of the Baton Rouge Business Report when J.R. Ball left for the Times-Picayune, penned an editorial fretting about the new spate of civic activity occurring in Baton Rouge.

It was a curious piece, as it expressed concern over the flurry of unsanctioned free expression happening in the Capitol City. One would expect a journalist to see such activity as a godsend – after all, without it Riegel would have to work much harder for material to include in her publication. That appreciation was sorely lacking…

In the past year and a half, Baton Rouge has seen efforts to create a breakaway chamber of commerce, a breakaway school district and a breakaway city. Now, a conservative nonprofit has been created, reportedly, to challenge the one organization that is trying to bring Baton Rouge together.

The trend is troubling on many levels and suggests something is deeply amiss in our community.

The new nonprofit group calls itself Louisiana Strong, and it was created to challenge Together Baton Rouge, a three-year-old organization that was founded with the support of more than 75 local churches to help bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Louisiana Strong organizers have said Together Baton Rouge is abusing its nonprofit status and “co-opting religious organizations to gain political power.” They have also said their group is trying to combat the “urban socialism” that is allegedly on the rise in the Red Stick.

That is an interesting choice of words to describe a city that greets motorists along Interstate 10 with three giant white crosses.

Riegel’s piece decries the effort to establish the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge and the city of St. George, but it especially has a mean-on for Louisiana Strong – and reads as though it might have been dictated by Together Baton Rouge president Brod Bagert. After recognizing that TBR bears paramount responsibility for the passage of the CATS tax, which is an unquestionable disaster, and that it’s an affiliate of the Saul Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation, she dismisses all that into the ether…

Either way, the real issue is not that Together Baton Rouge might be a subversive commie organization. It’s that Together Baton Rouge is trying to tackle the ugly truth that Baton Rouge would rather not acknowledge: That we are actually two cities with a split smack down the middle.

Consider that Baton Rouge has both the highest median income in the state and the lowest. It ranks first in Louisiana in terms of life expectancy and also last. Its residents have the highest level of educational attainment in the state and nearly the lowest.

In other words, the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Baton Rouge enjoy the best of what Louisiana has to offer. The mostly black low-income population of Baton Rouge experiences the worst.

That inequality might be unquestionable, but what Riegel doesn’t offer is anything constructive in the way of addressing it. What she says is that it’s a terrible thing for people to depart from the one-size-fits-all institutions the Baton Rouge governmental crowd have given us, and that it’s going to fracture the community to have competing institutions.

Stephanie Riegel says Together Baton Rouge means well, so they shouldn’t be opposed.

She says this less than a week after Together Baton Rouge offered up a candidate for the CATS board who recently – as in during the Obama administration – pled guilty to theft of funds raised from businesses purportedly dedicated to helping get kids off drugs. One could make a good argument that it’s literally impossible to find a more disqualified candidate to serve on a public board than Bill Johnson is, and yet Together Baton Rouge offered him up to replace a CATS board member who resigned after it was discovered he was paying his bills with CATS funds.

We find it difficult to believe this was mere incompetence, but even if it was the looming disaster of Johnson’s appointment to the board was averted when the civic-minded folks at Louisiana Strong Riegel so vigorously attacks in her piece shone a light on Johnson’s past.

In other words, Together Baton Rouge tries to give us a crook to serve on a public board, Louisiana Strong stops that from happening, and the editor of the business publication in town attacks…the organization who saves us from the crook.

It seems a reasonable statement to make that Louisiana Strong has already shown itself to be a very useful balance, or competitor, to Together Baton Rouge. One could say the friction between those two organizations could serve to keep each one honest. Instead, Riegel – again, the editor of the business publication in town – decries the presence of competition among civic organizations.

And here’s a money quote…

But is breaking away the only viable option? I don’t think so. I believe it is still possible to engage in the political process and work towards solutions that address the needs of the whole. Perhaps that means overhauling the way we structure and organize our local institutions. Perhaps that means changing the way we appoint people to the CATS or library board. Perhaps that means electing better members to the Metro Council or incorporating our consolidated city-parish government or merging our bifurcated law enforcement agencies.

Whatever the solutions, or approaches, there are better ways than tearing down, breaking apart and taking on a group like Together Baton Rouge, which works in the trenches to help the needier residents of our community.

This is an attack on diversity, is it not? Isn’t Riegel demanding uniformity of thought?

Or is she just clueless?

New York has five boroughs, and they’re fairly distinct. Los Angeles is a collection of small cities. Houston, Atlanta and Dallas are sprawling metropolises a small percentage of whose populations are located in the city proper. Great cities are built on diversity and competition among companies, among neighborhoods, among institutions.

Riegel’s failure to recognize this indicates she possesses a mindset – or maybe a skillset – poorly suited to her new role. Her predecessor was no rock-ribbed conservative but J.R. did understand – from his sports background, if nothing else – that there are consequences to losing, and that best practices and progress come from winners and those who copy them. And that understanding contributed to a perspective in the Business Report favoring excellence where it could be found.

Nothing about Together Baton Rouge is excellent. Very little about the East Baton Rouge public school system is excellent. Nothing much about the city-parish government is excellent. And while there is excellence to be found in the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, its service to the small business community represented by the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge doesn’t fit that description.

The new organizations and institutions being built in Baton Rouge are attempts to seek excellence – to fill a hole in the market, if you will – where it does not exist. If Together Baton Rouge is an Alinskyite leftist organization bent on wealth redistribution, it’s hardly surprising there would be an organization seeking societal improvement using other methods. If the public schools and government of the city waste money, fail to serve large parts of town and perform at a substandard level, it should be little surprise that a breakaway school district or, subsequently, a new incorporated city, should result. If the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which takes funding from the city government as an economic development contractor, is seen to focus more on established companies and public-private partnerships than assisting small business to grow, why wouldn’t there be a new business organization focusing on that mission?

What Riegel fails to see is that Louisiana Strong, St. George and the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge are healthy institutions for the Baton Rouge area. If they’re successful they will create best practices the existing institutions must copy, or perish. That’s what competition does.

The Baton Rouge Business Report, whose publisher Rolfe McCollister has no problem understanding this, needs to be the prime evangelist for competition and diversity of effort in this city. That’s what a business community is, and the business publication in a city must reflect that ethic. Riegel’s broadside against that competition and diversity is a defense of stagnation and mediocrity, and it’s badly out of place within those pages.

 

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