Mayor-President Melvin L. “Kip” Holden became the first African-American mayor-president of the City of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish in January 2005. In his first term, he most notably led Baton Rouge recovery efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. Now he has turned attention to long-term planning through his FutureBR plan. Some of his priorities include public safety, crime prevention through youth development, road improvements and Healthy BR, a program to promote better nutrition and active lifestyles. A graduate of Louisiana State University and Southern University Law Center, Holden began his career as a broadcast journalist before serving on the city council and state legislature.
Baton Rouge is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, and your park and recreation agency, the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC), is a special park district chartered by the state government that serves the entire parish. How do you as mayor ensure that parks and recreation are adequately funded and equitably distributed for all city residents?
While I do not have direct oversight of our park and recreation department, the mayor-president is an ex-officio member of the BREC Commission, which allows me to maintain a close working relationship with Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and her staff. I have tried to be a consistent champion for BREC activities, including tax renewals to fund operating expenses and construction throughout our park system, and participation in events that showcase what our parks have to offer. I’ve been able to connect BREC with some of the larger corporations in our city that award grants to expand programming and enhance our facilities, and help bring private funding partners to the table.
We understand that the BREC Foundation raises a significant amount of private funds to enable new capital construction of facilities as well as to provide support for recreation programs and services. How much of a role do private funding and partnerships play in ensuring the high quality of your park and recreation system, and do you feel it is important going forward?
In these days of budget constraints throughout local government, private funding has become critical to our ability to offer the latest recreational opportunities to our residents, and the BREC Foundation plays an increasingly important role. With millage rates set in the 1960s and low program fees to allow participation by the entire community, BREC relies on private funds to enhance our programming. By securing the largest-ever private donation of $1.2 million, BREC is building a contemporary visitors’ center for historic Magnolia Mound Plantation, located near downtown Baton Rouge and dating to 1791. A $1 million grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield helped fund the first phase of our Capital Area Pathways Project, a network of trails and greenways connecting some of our city’s medical and retail corridors. Private funding also has provided us an exciting new “parkmobile” called “BREC on the Geaux” that travels throughout our parish with games and fitness activities for children of all ages and abilities. With grants and private funds, we’re able to engage our community with the latest activities and programs that will lead them to healthier and more productive lifestyles.
You know through a number of your initiatives, such as Healthy BR, that parks and recreation addresses some of the most challenging issues in your community — youth obesity, prevention of juvenile delinquency and crime, and other issues. How important is it to your goals as mayor-president to address these challenges with youth, and what does parks and recreation do to help you solve problems?
The future of our children has been one of the top goals of my administration, and BREC has been a great partner in helping to provide activities and programs that reach all neighborhoods. That’s why I made sure BREC had a seat at the table when we launched the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project (BRAVE). Through BREC, we’re teaching life skills, talking about career opportunities and bringing role models and entertaining activities to some of our most at-risk neighborhoods. Through summer camps and after-school programs, we’re filling the gap for children who need access to safe, recreational activities while parents are at work. I served as chair of the National League of Cities Council on Youth, Education and Families, and brought best practices from around the country home to Baton Rouge to help improve the health of our residents. Through my work with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, we launched the Healthy Baton Rouge Initiative, which is promoting healthy eating and active living along with a greater awareness of the available resources to ensure better health. Through BREC on the Geaux, we’re bringing fun to kids who don’t live within walking distance of a park or who need a safe, structured activity in their neighborhood park. These children are our future, and I don’t think there is any better investment we can make than helping them to be successful in life.
Baton Rouge is located in one of the most beautiful natural areas in the country, but is also at the crossroads of many environmental challenges — energy development, sea-level rise, loss of wetlands and more. Do you believe that parks and recreation can help meet these environmental challenges? How does BREC do this?
I’ve been very active in the America’s Wetland Foundation’s work to draw attention to our fragile wetlands and the importance of a healthy Mississippi River to the nation. On the local level, Baton Rouge is investing in preserving and increasing green space, especially within the city center. BREC maintains many conservation areas and is currently reforesting some of its smaller parcels of land to increase habitat for birds and continue to improve air quality. But I believe people throughout the country need a better understanding of the importance of Louisiana, not just during hurricanes or oil spills, but in the context of what we provide. Our state is blessed with incredible natural resources, but we also help feed and fuel the nation, and I think we can use both our park system and our bully pulpit as elected officials to help educate people on the importance of preserving the natural beauty and bounty of Louisiana — I think we’re doing that now.
We also asked BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight: How do Mayor-President Holden’s priorities help to guide you in determining priorities for the park and recreation system of BREC? Does his leadership give you opportunities to advance conservation, health and wellness, and social equity?
Mayor-President Holden has played a significant role in helping BREC advance health, wellness and social equity in this community. In 2008, he created the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative as he strongly believes that in order for Baton Rouge to be a great city, it needs to be a healthy city.
Mayor Holden saw that organizations were working in silos, duplicating efforts and struggling to fund and sustain programs in isolation, so he quickly reached out to agencies like BREC to serve on his Board of Directors team to foster collaboration, coordination and communication. Today there are 58 local organizations working together to accelerate positive population health outcomes.
Another key initiative of the Mayor-President and his team was to actively engage BREC in helping to set the course for the future of this community through the FutureBR Comprehensive Plan. A diverse group of residents and stakeholders provided input through workshops, open houses, interviews, focus groups and surveys. The mayor and his team actively engaged BREC in the development and implementation of the plan to address two core values identified in the discussion: conservation and sustainability.