A Reservoir for Civic Progress

How can a community learn from its civic projects and build on them? There are lessons in Baton Rouge's years-long effort to establish a center for people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.
August 7, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Person sitting in street while cop stands there.
(David Kidd)
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

If you want to see how civic projects can move communities forward, take a look at the Bridge Center in Baton Rouge, La. Or, at least, at what it will be when it opens next year.

The Bridge Center will be a place for people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, and, in particular, an alternative to police and EMTs taking them to jail or an emergency room. This "third option," as advocates like to call it, should bring a cascade of benefits: relieving overcrowding at emergency rooms and the county jail while dealing with the region's addiction and mental-illness issues more humanely and productively.

It will even be easier for the cops. Processing a prisoner at the county jail can take an hour's time or more; waiting at an emergency room can take even longer. The Bridge Center's aim: Complete the handoff in 15 minutes. And did I mention that it will save money? One study estimated that the Bridge Center will save up to $55 million in its first decade over incarceration or emergency-room treatment. Little wonder then that nearly every public official, from the mayor to the county coroner, supported it.

But it's also an example of how hard such things can be. The project began five years ago when a group of law enforcement officials, mental-health advocates, public-health experts, judicial-system leaders and elected officials met to study Baton Rouge's problems and identify solutions. Experts from around the country were brought in. There were group visits to a center in San Antonio, Texas, that became the Bridge Center's model.

A clinical-design team outlined a series of services the Bridge Center could offer and how they could work together. A study suggested how the center might be funded. A nonprofit board was assembled that included the district attorney, the sheriff, mental-health care advocates, physicians, and other stakeholders.

With this mountain of testimonials, documentation, near-unanimous political support, heart-rending stories of loved ones lost in the jail, and favorable news coverage, supporters asked voters in December 2016 for a modest tax increase to get the center started. They said no. It took two more years and a massive citizen-engagement effort to get a different result. Last December, voters in East Baton Rouge Parish finally said yes to a 1.5-mil increase in property taxes. Looking back, local officials are convinced the Bridge Center was worth the effort. "It was absolutely a step forward," says Mayor Sharon Weston Broome.

Then again, city and parish leaders could afford to be patient with the slow pace. They have an ally, an organization that managed the Bridge Center proposal from first meeting through months of research and two referendums and will stick with it through ribbon-cutting: the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF), a community institution that has evolved into a kind of research and development center for civic progress. BRAF's fingerprints are on numerous projects, from a plan for downtown Baton Rouge to a nature center that takes visitors into a Louisiana swamp. It is trying to launch passenger-rail service from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. And this is just a partial list.

By managing so many civic projects, BRAF applies the lessons of one initiative to the next. (One lesson: Don't take referendums for granted.) Along the way, it has gained a reputation for getting things done, which opens even more doors. As foundation President John Davies says, "When the Baton Rouge Area Foundation asks people to come to a meeting, they will usually come." And these advantages grow over time. While elected leaders come and go, BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain notes, "we are consistently here."

Mayor Broome is a fan. "We are extremely fortunate to have a strong foundation like BRAF in our community," she says. Still, she's careful to add that the foundation doesn't dictate to local government; it collaborates. As she sees it, the city and the foundation are "co-creators" of civic progress.

I've seen other organizations play this R&D role in a community, at least for a while. Typically, it is a business group such as a chamber of commerce. Occasionally, a university will step up. But most local governments have no organized way of learning how civic progress works. They depend on extraordinary leaders (some elected, most not) to figure things out. And here's the problem with that: In a lifetime, an extraordinary leader may take on one or two big civic projects before drifting out of civic work. When she leaves, her knowledge, skills and relationships leave with her.

So you may want to ask: How does my community pass civic knowledge from one leader to the next? How do leaders build relationships? How do good ideas find funding? How do they survive disappointments?

If there isn't an organization or at least a process for learning from successful projects and storing civic knowledge, good ideas may come like rain striking parched ground. They make a splash, raise hopes and then evaporate. Is it time to build a reservoir?