The Pelican State Supply building stands on Plank Road, a little past Club Raggs and the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. The block-long, modern-era building with boarded-up plate-glass windows and small trees sprouting from the roof has been vacant for five years. DXP Enterprises, a company dealing in industrial equipment, was the last tenant.
The Pelican State Supply building and others like it — a Family Dollar is close by, and a CVS pharmacy sits across the street — are part of what may be Baton Rouge’s most decaying and crime-ridden commercial strip. Both the Family Dollar and CVS store have roll-down shutters protecting the front doors, and customers are met by the eye of a security camera when they walk inside.
Business activity in neighborhoods around Plank Road in north Baton Rouge has been declining for at least a decade, while criminal activity is rampant, Census and crime data show.
The majority of homicides during the past six years happened in four of the city’s ZIP codes, with the 70805 ZIP code — bordered by Airline Highway, Choctaw Drive and the Mississippi River — being the most deadly. Violent crime in Baton Rouge peaked in 2009 when 75 people were slain. Last year, there were 64 slayings within the city limits.
Academics and business owners in crime-ridden areas say having more small, locally owned stores and restaurants helps drive crime out of a neighborhood. Such business owners tend to have a connection with the community and a genuine interest in making sure it prospers, said LSU sociologist Troy Blanchard.
“They have a vested interest in the community doing as well as possible, because it affects the well-being of their business,” Blanchard said.
Samuel Sanders, executive director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, shared a similar message during a meeting last month of the Mid City Merchants organization: “It’s your business and you care about those folks that are coming into your business. Whereas a chain, they’re leasing a space, they could shut down at any time and go away. Locally owned business folks aren’t going anywhere.”
And small-business leaders also tend to be civic leaders, said Matthew Lee, associate vice chancellor for research and economic development at LSU.
“They’re in their neighborhood associations and their local business development organizations,” Lee said. “And because they have an entrepreneurial ability, they typically have broader sets of leadership skills that make them prime candidates to be involved in other kinds of community affairs.”
Another key to economic vitality is having a comprehensive transportation system effectively moving shoppers, workers and others through a neighborhood, said Leslie T. Grover, an assistant professor and researcher in the public administration department at Southern University.
“When you don’t have transportation, it’s a downward effect on a neighborhood,” she said. “And it also means sidewalks. Just the ability to be able to walk and take my bike is important.”
The Capital Area Transit System, Baton Rouge’s bus system, operates several bus lines through north Baton Rouge. But the service has been hobbled by long wait times — a situation the system’s newly approved property tax is supposed to address.
Wally Charleville understands how businesses can become part of the community fabric. He grew up on 38th Street in north Baton Rouge and owns the Baton Rouge Trading Post at the corner of Winbourne Avenue and Foster Drive.
“At one time, all of this was real nice,” said Charleville, whose business deals in secondhand appliances like stoves, dryers and window-unit air conditioners.
“I’ve been here since 1982, and honestly, I don’t have any trouble,” Charleville said one morning while overseeing his shop. “But then again, I know most of the people. Most of my customers, I’ve known them since they were kids.”
Just up the street, Adnan Ghanem operates the Real Star convenience store behind a barricade of barred windows and a protective plastic-glass dugout shielding the counter. Despite the unnerving setting, Ghanem says his business sees little trouble.
When asked why he installed the bars and other protections, Ghanem shrugged.
“Every store has put these up,” he said. “As long as you do right, you’ll never have no problems.”
Early one morning nearly five years ago, a robber walked into Pete’s Farmers Market on Airline Highway and fatally shot 71-year-old Alfred Mequet, the open-air market’s elderly security guard.
“Let me say this: Over here, that was just a freak accident. We’ve never had trouble before that,” said Douglas Pizzolato, who operates the business with his father, Pete.
Pizzolato is quick to stress he is not immune to the criminal chaos that often fills the streets in the neighborhoods surrounding his produce market — on the corner of Airline Highway and Foster Drive for about 25 years — but it has remained, by and large, a safe place.
While fatal business holdups are uncommon, lesser crimes such as armed robbery or burglary plague fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, discount centers and other businesses in the area, undermining the community’s economic survival.
A Popeye’s restaurant on Choctaw Drive, the Family Dollar discount store on Plank Road and an Advance Auto Parts store, also on Plank, have recently experienced “repeat instances of where they have been robbed by individuals with hand guns,” said Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a Baton Rouge Police spokesman. When contacted for comment, store officials were either unavailable or unwilling to talk.
The fear is that such crimes turn away businesses, which then makes a neighborhood less desirable for its residents.
“Crime and violence can have a snowball effect on non-positive impacts within a community, just based upon the broken window perception and concept,” said John Smith, president of the Baton Rouge Downtown Business Association and vice-president of programs for 100 Black Men, citing the urban-decline theory that a building with broken windows is a sign of apathy and neglect, attracting criminals to an area.
“If you are located in an area where it is perceived there’s a lot of crime and violence, by default, people say, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ So the real, big impact that it has is on perception,” said Smith. “The second impact it has is on the cost of goods and services, and your bottom line. Because if it is perceived that this is an area where there’s a negative perception, insurance premiums go up.”
Improving Baton Rouge’s image starts with bringing down the city’s homicide rate, said Van R. Mayhall Jr., who heads the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s crime council.
BRAC leaders and others often look to Austin, Texas, as a peer city — or certainly one Baton Rouge could aspire to mirror, given Austin’s strong tech startup and entrepreneurial energy. As a point of comparison, Austin’s 2011 homicide rate was 3.4 per 100,000 people, according to the Austin Police Department. Baton Rouge’s homicide rate last year was 28 per 100,000 people.
“If you have one statistic that communities are rated, it’s the murder rate,” Mayhall said, adding BRAC is a strong backer of the recently launched Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project, a move to target violent offenders as well as drug offenders in the city’s 70805 ZIP code.
The roughly 3-square-mile area in that ZIP code houses only 13 percent of the city’s population but is where 30 percent of the city’s homicides and 40 percent of Baton Rouge’s gun assaults occur, Mayor-President Kip Holden has said.
The number of business establishments in 70805 fell 5 percent from 1999 to 2009, according to Census data. The population of the area remained about the same, at roughly 30,000. Conversely, the 70809 ZIP code, an affluent and growing area following Interstate 10 from just above Bluebonnet Boulevard to just beyond Highland Road, enjoyed a 27 percent increase in the number of businesses from 1999 to 2009. The population in 70809 grew 29 percent from 2000 to 2010.
The number of businesses dropped in six of the nine ZIP codes spanning north Baton Rouge.
By contrast, businesses multiplied in all five ZIP codes in south Baton Rouge over the past decade. For example, in the 70808 ZIP code, which includes LSU and is bordered by Burbank Drive, Staring Lane and Broussard Street to the north, the number of business establishments grew 8 percent while population fell 5 percent, according to Census data.
To be sure, no one is saying south Baton Rouge is crime-free, or that crime trends directly dictate business trends. In 2011, 29 robberies and three homicides occurred in the 70808 ZIP code, according to Baton Rouge Police statistics. However, farther north in the Choctaw Drive and Plank Road neighborhood, police reported roughly 146 robberies and 14 murders last year, the statistics show.
North Baton Rouge has no shortage of liquor stores. What’s missing from the business landscape are the basics for neighborhood and business development: supermarkets and restaurants, banks, shops and services such as dry cleaners, said the Rev. Raymond W. Johnson, bishop of Living Faith Christian Center, a Winbourne Avenue church with a sign at its sanctuary’s entrance that warns, “Protected by armed guards.” “We have one store, Hi Nabor, and a couple other smaller stores,” he said. “Eating establishments are almost nonexistent. You have some fast-food. A lot of liquor and tobacco and those kinds of really not good moral things for the community.”
It’s a business environment that suffers from the corrosive effects of endemic crime, said 100 Black Men’s Smith.
“The businesses that are remaining are those that you basically go in and you come out relatively quickly,” Smith said. “If a person doesn’t feel safe and secure, they don’t spend much time in an establishment. And that potentially impacts the types of establishments you might find in an area.”
Johnson said he’d like to see more redevelopment like that at the Delmont Village shopping center on Plank Road. The parking lot is clean and well-kept, and the shopping center includes a Capital One Bank branch, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Piccadilly Cafeteria, a USAgencies auto insurance office and other shops. A little farther up Plank Road is a Piggly Wiggly, one of the few and much-needed full-service, affordable grocery stores in the area, Johnson added. Another Piggly Wiggly operates on Choctaw Drive about three miles away.
“Most people have to go outside 70805 because you just can’t find the basic needs,” lamented Johnson, noting that many of the grocery stores are hardly more than over-priced convenience stores with little to choose from. At one grocery in that area, a loaf of white bread sold for $1.99 and the store had no milk when this reporter visited on a Tuesday morning earlier last month. Its four aisles were stacked with items like Ramen Noodles and sugared cereal such as Apple Jacks and Froot Loops, but no fresh produce.
At another grocery around the corner, a pound of Community Coffee sold for $6.99 while at a Plank Road store, a loaf of Holsum white bread cost $2.29 and a gallon of milk was $5.99.
By comparison, the same bread at Albertsons on Government Street last week cost $1.25 a loaf and milk ranged from $4.39 a gallon to $6.39. A pound of Community Coffee was $7.29.
The future for 70805 and other high-crime areas of Baton Rouge is not entirely bleak. Smith, of 100 Black Men, is working on an initiative to get residents trained in pipe-fitting, welding and electrical work in an effort to combat the perilously high unemployment and low job skills among the area’s residents. The North Baton Rouge Training Institute is holding a community meeting Thursday to introduce this effort, announced Metro-Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards. Up to 60 people could qualify for program.
Johnson, from Living Faith Christian Center, would like to organize gatherings of business people as a means to mine collaboration and networking: “The people who are already in the field, who have the expertise and maybe see a coalition of people get together to say, ‘What can we do to attract businesses?’ ”
Back at Pete’s Farmers Market, where bins are loaded with bell peppers, onions, celery and other basics to Louisiana cooking, owners say their business is here to stay. When asked if they have ever planned to relocate from north Baton Rouge, Douglas Pizzolato didn’t miss a beat.
“Only to expand, you know, only to expand,” he remarked.
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