BR, N.O. rank above average for jobs in or near downtown

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Traffic zips by a medical office building under construction at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center on Essen Lane. The growing medical district around the Essen-Bluebonnet corridor is contributing to employment growth in areas between three to 10 miles of downtown Baton Rouge that is above the national average. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Traffic zips by a medical office building under construction at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center on Essen Lane. The growing medical district around the Essen-Bluebonnet corridor is contributing to employment growth in areas between three to 10 miles of downtown Baton Rouge that is above the national average.

Region bucks trend of sprawl

A report on the shift of jobs from downtowns to suburban areas shows that Baton Rouge and New Orleans rank above the national average for the percentage of private-sector employment either inside or just outside the central business district.

Nearly 54 percent of workers in Baton Rouge work between 3 and 10 miles from the city’s downtown, compared with an average of 34 percent for the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, according to a report issued Thursday by the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

At the end of 2010, 165,517 people were working in the 3- to 10-mile range of downtown Baton Rouge, a 10.6 percent increase over 2000.

In New Orleans, Brookings found that 31.6 percent of employees worked in the city’s CBD, compared with the national average of almost 23.0 percent.

And while the number of jobs in New Orleans dropped from 2007 to 2010, the number of workers in the CBD actually increased by 3.7 percent during that period, going from 129,178 to 133,990. The share of jobs in the CBD increased from 29.8 percent in 2007 to 31.6 percent in 2010, though still down from pre-Katrina levels.

Only Chattanooga, Tenn., had a bigger increase in that period, going from 30.1 percent to 32.6 percent.

Elizabeth Kneebone, the author of the report and a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, said both Baton Rouge and New Orleans are more centralized than the average U.S. city.

Kneebone said it makes a difference for cities where the jobs are located. If the jobs are located in or near the central business district, it reduces the amount of traffic and congestion on roadways.

Along with giving the city a smaller carbon footprint, Kneebone said having jobs in the core of a city makes it easier to connect workers to employment.

“It can be hard for low-income residents to get to job opportunities if they don’t have a car or access to reliable transportation,” she said.

According to the report, the share of jobs located in or near a downtown declined in 91 out of 100 metro areas from 2000 to 2010. In Baton Rouge, the percentage of jobs downtown dropped from 18.6 percent in 2000 to 15.1 percent in 2010. In New Orleans, the percentage of jobs in the CBD went from 33.8 percent in 2000 to 31.6 percent in 2010.

Davis Rhorer, executive director of Baton Rouge’s Downtown Development District, said the Brookings numbers don’t fully illustrate what is happening in downtown Baton Rouge.

The effort to consolidate state government offices downtown was completed during 2000-2010, a move that brought thousands of government jobs to the area not counted in Brookings’ private sector report. During that same period, the II City Plaza office building, the Shaw Center for the Arts and the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center all opened downtown.

Despite this, the Brookings report said the number of private sector jobs in downtown Baton Rouge actually dropped from 52,405 in 2000 to 46,453 in 2010.

Rhorer said he’s “very pleased” with the way growth is continuing downtown, noting that a number of private sector projects have happened since 2010. Those include the opening of the Hotel Indigo, the Hampton Inn & Suites that will open on May 1 and IBM’s software development center set to open in 2015. “We’re having a complete resurgence,” Rhorer said.

Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said she doesn’t see sprawl as a huge issue in Baton Rouge.

“I wouldn’t say the city is decentralized,” she said. “The Downtown Development District has driven this kind of return to the center.”

DiResto said there have been several job clusters that popped up during 2000-2010 just outside downtown, such as the medical district around Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard; retail developments around the Mall of Louisiana, Towne Center and Perkins Rowe; and the Bon Carré Business Center on Florida Boulevard.

Nationally, the share of downtown jobs in the largest U.S. cities fell from 24.5 percent to 22.9 percent in 2010.

“This is a decadelong trend, this shift away from the urban core to the outer rings,” Kneebone said.

But during the national recession, this shift started to turn around. While the number of jobs in downtown areas dropped from 79.0 million in 2007 to 73.2 million in 2010, the percentage of people who work downtown actually increased slightly, from 22.6 percent to 22.9 percent. At the same time, the percentage of people who work 10 to 35 miles from a downtown area dropped from 43.2 percent to 43.1 percent.

According to the Brookings report, the industries hardest hit by the recession — construction, manufacturing and retail — tend to be those least likely to have a significant presence in a downtown.

Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development alliance that serves the 10 parishes around New Orleans, said the recent increase in jobs in the New Orleans CBD shows the repopulation of the urban center that is happening in the Crescent City. This is being driven by projects such as GE Capital’s decision to build an information technology center in the CBD, which will add 300 jobs by 2015.

“The next five or 10 years we’re going to have a diversity of jobs spread across the region,” Hecht said. “That’s good news for the region.”