FutureBR planner: Creating city of St. George would cause ‘chaos’

The master planner who spearheaded the much-lauded, and recently adopted FutureBR land use plan cautioned that the proposed City of St. George could derail progress being made by the parish.

John Fregonese, who was the keynote speaker at the Baton Rouge Rotary Club on Wednesday, described the potential impact of St. George on the parish as chaotic and catastrophic.

“The idea of creating a city like this — I can’t find another place in the United States where it would cause so much turmoil,” Fregonese said.

Fregonese noted that the proposed boundaries for the new city include major retail developments including the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe, which generate significant sales tax for the city-parish budget.

“The problem is that the whole parish built a major retail center there,” Fregonese said. “You have $90 million go from one hand to another and that’s going to cause a major catastrophe to the finances of this parish.”

He said much of Baton Rouge’s economic success in recent years can be attributed to its financial stability.

“The confidence of your central government is such a big part of your economic package,” Fregonese said.

But Norman Browning, the lead organizer behind the proposed city, said in an interview that he thinks St. George will be an economic driver because it will create another top-tier school system in the parish, like Zachary and Central.

The effort to form a new city was born out of two failed attempts in the state legislature to create an independent school system. Opponents said it didn’t make sense to create a school system because St. George is not its own city.

Like the City of Central in 2005, St. George leaders decided to create a new city in order to get a school system.

“If you have a great city and great education — that will bring business here,” Browning said. “Zachary schools haven’t hurt the parish, Central schools haven’t hurt the parish. We’re going to improve economic development in East Baton Rouge.”

The effort to incorporate St. George is underway, with leaders attempting to get 25 percent of registered voters within the proposed boundaries to sign a petition.

If backers are successful in getting the necessary 18,000 signatures, ultimately the residents of the proposed area will vote on whether they will form their own city. Leaders of the effort say they have not done an official tally, but estimate that they’ve collected about one-third of the required signatures. There’s no deadline for the petition.

Browning said he hopes to have the petition ready in time to have a May election.

Lionel Rainey III, a spokesman for the St. George effort, said Fregonese is not an unbiased expert, noting he has a $200,000 contract with the city-parish to work on FutureBR.

Rainey also took issue with Fregenose’s financial estimate that St. George would generate $90 million in sales taxes.

“We unequivocally dispute this number, where did this number come from?” Rainey said. “He needs to justify these numbers.”

St. George advocates have said they expect to have a budget of about $65 million in sales taxes. However, city-parish officials say they do not have an estimate of how much sales tax revenue the city would generate and have not been asked for data by the proposed city leaders.

Rainey said they combed through city-parish budget to come up with sales tax revenue estimates.

The city-parish budget outlines municipal sales taxes and unincorporated sales taxes. However the unincorporated parts include much more than the proposed area of St. George, encompassing much of the northern part of the parish and the industrial areas.

“You can look at the proposed St. George area and you just know it’s the lion share of the dollars,” Browning said.

Rainey said his group would provide a breakdown of its budget at a meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday.

St. George would be the fifth incorporated city in East Baton Rouge Parish, joining the cities of Baton Rouge, Zachary, Baker and Central.

Fregonese said in an interview after the Rotary meeting that the proposed city would be much different than the previous incorporations, including Central, which broke off in 2005.

Baker, Central and Zachary, unlike the proposed city of St. George, are “kind of rural and not in the heart” of the parish, Fregonese said.

“This is right in the heart,” Fregonese said. “Right in the core of your economic engine. There’s a big difference between Baker and South Baton Rouge parish.”

In addition to hurting the city-parish’s finances, he said, creating a separate city complicates planning and development because it requires coordination between two city governments, different officials and planning and zoning departments.

“It requires the two cities to work together as if they’re one — and they’re already one,” Fregonese said. “So why not just stay that way and work out educational stuff without causing this chaos.”

Browning noted that a lot of economic development is happening in downtown Baton Rouge, which would be unaffected by St. George, since a dedicated state sales tax rebate funds many downtown projects.

“We’re not here to destroy the parish,” he said. “This could be a huge benefit that could be shared throughout the parish.”