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Revitalization of downtown the result of decades of planning and hard work

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Saturday, November 16, 2013 - 4:05pm

If you have not been to downtown Baton Rouge lately, you may not realize just how much it has grown. There are new businesses opening, millions of dollars in investments being made, and properties being built and renovated all over.

It is growing so fast, it is hard to keep up with all that is happening. But for people who live and work there every day, the change is hard to miss.

"I remember when I was in graduate school in the early 90's," Dr. Tracy Shaffer said, "driving around Spanish Town and just falling in love with the houses. So when I moved back to Baton Rouge in December of 2000, I knew that that's where I wanted to be."

Shaffer teaches at LSU. But she also grew up in Baton Rouge. So when she saw the positive direction our downtown area was taking, she wanted to be a part of it.

"My first place was a rental on Spanish Town Road," she said. "And I got to throw Spanish Town parade parties. "

Positive experiences like that led Shaffer to the purchase of her first downtown home three years later. And after she met and married LSU diving coach Doug Shaffer, the two bought and renovated the historic place they and their daughter Sarah now call home.

"The culture of the properties, the architecture of the properties, the uniqueness of the properties," Doug Shaffer mentioned as some of the reasons he enjoys where he lives. "You know, there's a lot of character in downtown Baton Rouge and the proximity to really everything."

And that is no accident. The Downtown Development District has been working on all of that that since the mid-1980's. That is when the state legislature, at the request of then-mayor Pat Screen, created the DDD specifically for the purpose of breathing life back into downtown.

"You had the Old State Capitol closed, the Old Governor's Mansion closed, Catfish Town was closed, the museum was closed," said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the DDD. "So you had to really start from the very beginnings just trying to get some of these major institutions back open."

The goal was to create a place not only for locals and families like the Shaffers, but a destination spot for visitors worldwide. The hard work paid off and now more people are getting onboard.

"Now I have 36 young entrepreneurs investing in some 50 different projects downtown," Rhorer stated, "so it's quite extraordinary. The new wave of ownership is coming up."

And it is no wonder. With the addition of the Hampton Inn, downtown Baton Rouge now has four hotels. IBM is working on its $55 million headquarters that will fill an entire downtown block, and include dozens of the more than 300 new residential spaces being built downtown.

Downtown has a pharmacy, a grocery store, and a thriving arts district. And now, even when the Sun goes down, the activity level here certainly does not. In fact, 3rd Street has become a prime destination for young people, students and professionals alike. It is a place for people to get together, relax, and just have a good time, all in one central area.

"The good thing about it is it's not such a college crowd," Rachel Barnes said. "It's a bunch of older people, so it's nice."

It has been a long road for Rhorer, who for more than a quarter of a century has led the charge to change downtown for the better. Now, instead of looking to other cities for examples of what a downtown should be like, he believes we are setting the example right here.

"I find in a lot of ways we're leading the curve," he said. "You know, we are out there."

In fact, Baton Rouge is so out there, people like world renowned urban planner Andres Duani use our downtown as an example of what can be accomplished with proper planning and follow-through. Coincidentally, Duani will be back in the Capitol City for a three-day "good growth" conference next week.

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