Comparing Austin and Baton Rouge!
For as far back as I can remember, comparisons have been made between Louisiana’s state capitol city and Austin, Texas. In the 1960s the population of both cities were about the same. Austin and Baton Rouge were the homes of both the centers of state government and the location of each state’s major university. Both cities were laid back and growing at an average southern pace. So how do they rate today?
Austin has become one of the fastest growing cities in America. The University of Texas is ranked as one of the top public universities in the nation with an endowment that rivals number one Harvard. US News and World Report just released their national rankings as the best place in American to live. Their number one ranking? Austin, Texas. And the icing on the cake came in the recent announcement that Apple will invest over one billion dollars on a new high-tech campus. Apple will create in Austin 5000 new jobs that will increase to 15,000 employees with an average salary of $150,000. The Texas hub was also just named as on one of the top five places to retire in the U.S.
The Baton Rouge population base has been stagnant, although there has been significant growth in surrounding parishes, primarily due to the influx of Katrina relocators. The capital city’s ranking on the US News’ best places to live is 100. (Lafayette is listed as number 107, New Orleans at 111, and Shreveport at 119 No other Louisiana cities were listed.) LSU doesn’t crack the top 100 national universities, coming in at 140. The LSU endowment is one of the lowest of any college in the U.S., and one of the least funded of all SEC colleges.
So why the disparity? What happened that has allowed Austin to thrive and for Baton Rouge to just trudge along as just another slow growing average southern state? There were several major turning points that accelerated the differences.
First, a major thriving university can be the catalyst for flourishing cities across the country. Governor Huey Long continually professed his commitment to LSU pledging to make it the Harvard of the South. But he failed to put into place permanent finance guarantees. So LSU, just as today, was required to go hat in hand each year to request funding from the state legislature. Texas on the other hand, directed a significant portion of the state’s oil and gas revenue to set up a continuing revenue stream to the state’s flagship university. LSU struggled while the University of Texas thrived.
Second, the assassination of President John Kennedy dealt another blow to Baton Rouge. The original NASA Space Center was to be located in New Orleans. LSU would have received major funding as a research center for the NASA project. But after Kennedy’s death, Lyndon Johnson changed the locations to Houston, and saw that millions of dollars of research funds went to the University of Texas. If the Center had stayed in Louisiana, Baton Rouge would have greatly benefited by the federal dollars to be spent on the project.
Third, the 1973 constitutional convention dealt a blow to LSU, and thus Baton Rouge, by not adopting one board to govern higher education. As a delegate to CC73, I pushed for such a “one board “concept but was unsuccessful in getting this concept adopted. In the years that followed, every college in the state wanted to become a little LSU with full funding for graduate programs. The tax dollars splinted, and mediocrity thrived. LSU’s leadership compounded the problem by failing to aggressively build an endowment of financial gifts from alumni and supporters; something many other SEC schools have done effectively.
Fourth, Austin has worked hard to become a clean city. Businesses and potential newcomers like that about Austin. They pick up their trash. A great slogan of “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Baton Route? Just look out your car window as you drive around the city. When was the last time you heard of someone being given as ticket for littering? And how many times have you cringed as the car in front of you lowers their window and throws out a cup, a wrapper or a cigarette butt?
Baton Rouge and every Louisiana city has had some bad luck, but they all can do better. It’s a new year. Either commit to grow and thrive or stay passive and dwindle. It takes political leadership and vision. Let’s hope for a better 2019.
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.