Firms question crime rate

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK - This bill board facing west visible to eastbound I-12 drivers  says Baton Rouge's murder rate is higher than Chicago's. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK - This bill board facing west visible to eastbound I-12 drivers says Baton Rouge's murder rate is higher than Chicago's.

Concerns growing for local businesses, prospective companies

“Clearly it’s affecting the business climate of the community. It’s a heightened concern for doing business in the Baton Rouge area.” ADAM KNAPP,  BRAC president and chief executive officer, referring to crime in Louisiana’s capital city

The perception that Baton Rouge has a crime problem has led to questions from companies looking at possibly relocating here, and is a growing concern for local firms, according to Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Site selection consultants who visit Baton Rouge on behalf of companies looking to move or expand have begun asking about crime in the last few years, Knapp said recently. Before that, he said questions about the community’s crime rate almost never came up.

“What we have seen is more companies asking about it as part of their questioning when making a site decision,” Knapp said. “Historically, it is not one of the top things that companies ask their site selection consultants.”

Knapp said that when a site selector asked about high crime, the next question invariably asked is what the community is doing to address crime problems.

He praised Operation BRAVE, an effort based on the nationally acclaimed Operation Ceasefire that is focused on reducing murders in the 70805 ZIP code. Police statistics have shown that area, generally bordered by Airline Highway to the north and east, Choctaw Drive to the south and the Mississippi River to the west, to be one of the city’s most violent.

Knapp said he knew of no companies that had rejected a Baton Rouge site due to concerns about crime.

Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU, said companies usually rank crime behind workforce issues and cost of operations when considering a city.

“If you think about it from the standpoint of a business, safety and security is going to be a concern,” Goidel said. “I think there is a point where crime becomes more important than other factors.”

Businesses would likely examine crime in the specific part of the parish they were investigating as a location, he said.

“Crime is an issue everywhere, but it’s uneven all over the parish,” Goidel said. “It’s not the overall crime rate alone.”

Companies may be willing to overlook smaller crimes, he said, but violent crimes and robberies were likely to play a bigger role than other offenses when making decisions on locating a business.

Reducing violent crime was the goal of a special committee BRAC created earlier this year.

“The murder rate stands out as the biggest area of concern” for businesses, Knapp said.

The committee had met with the heads of law enforcement agencies to discuss the problem, Knapp said.

As of Friday morning, 82 people had been killed in East Baton Rouge Parish in 2012.

City police statistics show the number of major crimes overall — such as rapes, robberies, burglaries, car thefts and assaults — have fluctuated since 2005. In 2011, there were 15,173 major crimes reported, up less than 1 percent from 2010.

In addition to companies looking to move into Baton Rouge, local companies have also identified crime as a drag on the business climate, Knapp said.

Crime finished fourth among 10 factors seen as hindering business in the capital region in BRAC’s 2013 Economic Outlook survey, which was released Friday.

This year was the first year crime had been included in the survey question, Knapp said.

The obstacles that outranked crime included transportation issues, education and workforce issues.

Almost three in 10 respondents listed crime as an issue. Respondents were allowed to choose multiple answers on the survey.

“Clearly it’s affecting the business climate of the community,” Knapp said. “It’s a heightened concern for doing business in the Baton Rouge area.”

Knapp said BRAC chose to include crime in the survey after hearing about it from several local companies.

Goidel said companies could be influenced by media coverage or public campaigns.

During the mayor’s race, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s main challenger, Mike Walker made crime the central focus of his campaign.

Walker said Baton Rouge was in a “crime emergency,” and that his mission, if elected, would be to redirect funds to place more police officers on the streets to help curb crime.

Holden disputed Walker’s characterization of the crime problem and said his administration was doing all it could to fight crime.

In addition, businessman Lane Grigsby launched a public anti-crime campaign called “Fight not Fear,” which calls crime in Baton Rouge “out of hand,” according to the website fightnotfear.com.

The campaign urges the merger of the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office into one law-enforcement agency, among other things.

A billboard on Interstate 12 reads “BR murder rate higher than Chicago,” in large block letters. The billboard is not connected to the “Fight not Fear” campaign, spokesman Jay Connaughton said.

The billboard does not indicate who sponsored the message.

LSU’s Goidel said such campaigns could influence businesses.

“It’s unquestionable that a media campaign would affect perceptions of crime even beyond the crime problem,” he said.

But in Baton Rouge’s case, “those campaigns reflect some very real concerns.”