St. George backers pitch new city at public meeting

Turnout curious, in favor of city

Supporters of the effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish held their first public meeting Thursday night, drawing more than 200 people — most of them backing St. George’s creation.

Lionel Rainey, one of the leaders of the incorporation effort, said the group wanted an opportunity to answer questions and address concerns directly.

He stressed that signing the petition would only put the issue to a vote of the people.

“You have the right to be able to vote on it. God gave you that right,” he said.

The meeting, held in the Woodlawn Baptist Church sanctuary, didn’t draw any vocal opponents.

Despite recent efforts to push against the St. George movement, organizers say they have half of the 18,000 signatures needed to put incorporation to a vote in a special election.

Only those who live within the proposed St. George boundaries would be eligible to cast a ballot on the issue.

“This will happen,” said Norman Browning, one of the key organizers of the effort. “We will get this to a vote.”

The new city would include all of the parish’s unincorporated areas south of Baton Rouge’s city limits — about 85 square miles of land and more than 107,000 residents.

At the beginning and end of Thursday’s meeting, dozens of people crowded around two folding tables to sign the petition. Many picked up stickers, proclaiming “I’m IN” — the official slogan of the St. George effort.

Peggy and Fred Goodwin, who have lived in Shenandoah for 20 years, already had decided they were on board and came to the meeting to add their names to the petition.

Peggy Goodwin said she thinks that the movement has been unfairly portrayed in the national media.

Many of those accounts have highlighted the contrast between the affluent St. George and urban Baton Rouge based on average household income, employment rates, and percentages of black and white residents. Goodwin said relatives in Tennessee have even asked about it after they heard about the effort in the news there.

“It’s not about race,” Goodwin said. “Anyone who says that just doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Aside from concerns over demographics, some have come out against St. George because of the economic impact it could have on Baton Rouge and the parish.

Baton Rouge business leaders are expected to launch a campaign against St. George, and the Baton Rouge firefighters union also opposes the effort.

Many of their concerns reflect the findings of a 28-page economic impact study commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation that suggests the city-parish government would face a $53 million revenue shortfall if St. George becomes its own city, taking valuable sales tax revenue generators such as Perkins Rowe and the Mall of Louisiana.

“This is a decision that will impact the entire parish,” the report’s authors wrote. “As such, we believe it is a decision that should incorporate the views of the entire city-parish community.”

Metro Councilman John Delgado this week raised his own concerns about the effort — that it could create uncertainty for residents of the new city — and he has proposed allowing property owners along Baton Rouge’s city limits to request annexation into the city.

St. George proponents say they have been expecting a fight.

“When we started this, we knew we were going to have really staunch opposition,” Rainey said. “We are literally fighting City Hall.”

Like many in the proposed new city’s boundaries, the Goodwins said they feel that the southern part of the parish isn’t fully represented by the city-parish combined government, which they believe skews in the interest of Baton Rouge.

“There’s no reason for our schools to be as poor as they are,” Peggy Goodwin said. “They all need a good education. It’s only through education that the crime rate will go down and the tax rolls will go up.”

Charlotte Spencer, who also lives in Shenandoah, said she came to the meeting undecided. She wanted to get more information about the effort and was convinced. She signed the petition on her way out.

“I wanted to get some facts form the people who have been working on this,” she said. “It truly is for the betterment of the citizens in this area.”

Spencer, who was born in Baton Rouge and has lived in the area all her life, said her children are already out of school but she believes the new city will create better education opportunities for other children.

“It’s sad to see this struggle that has been going on for so long,” she said. “It’s to the point where it’s not, ‘Why do this now?’ It’s ‘Why not?’”

A large portion of the meeting was conducted by the Rev. C.L. Bryant, a Baptist minister from Shreveport, who led the group in a sermon-like pep talk that drew several rounds of applause.

“I’ve done my homework on this issue,” Bryant said. “I certainly hope you will form a new city called St. George.”

Bryant, who is black and previously headed the Garland, Texas NAACP chapter, alluded to a racial aspect of the new city’s creation that has drawn some recent backlash. The new city’s population would be about 70 percent white and 23 percent black, while Baton Rouge is 55 percent black and 40 percent white.

“May God hasten the day when we can put aside the foolishness that floats so often on that shallow sea of color,” Bryant said.

Bryant, a radio and television host, is a tea party advocate who has defended the conservative political group against charges of racism in the national media.

He also has traveled the country to promote to conservatives a documentary called “Runaway Slave” that is critical of welfare programs.