Sixteen percent of all new jobs statewide were created in nearby Baton Rouge in 2003, according to Loren Scott, an LSU economist. And personal income among Baton Rouge residents is expected to increase as much as 4.8 percent by 2005. Developers are relying on these stats to put the capitol city on the retail map. Two companies, Creekstone Co. and JTS Interests, are building mixed-use developments, hoping the anticipated job growth will lure residents to the city center.

Baton Rouge has acquired a reputation for sprawl. A recent report from Smart Growth America ranked it the 24th most sprawling city in the country, noting that the four-parish region, including the West Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston, has low population density and a poor street network.

The traffic-jammed roads mean it takes the average Baton Rouge commuter 25 minutes to get to work, longer than in much larger metro areas such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Kansas City. The sprawling metro area is the result of 70-year-old zoning policies created to separate residential areas from the chemical factories and other industrial areas that fuel Baton Rouge's economy. NIMBYism is also prevalent in the market, with homeowners staunchly against high-density in-fill projects that could drive their property values south.

Baton Rouge-based JTS is in its first phase of construction for Perkins Rowe, a 60-acre project on Perkins Road and Bluebonnet Boulevard that will cost $250 million. When it opens in mid 2004, the development will include a 100-room boutique hotel, a medical facility and a 400,000-square-foot retail center with entertainment venues and restaurants. Perkins Rowe will also feature 1,000 residential units priced at about $250,000 each.

“We're marketing to the people who don't want to worry about a backyard — who are looking to be in a town setting to shop and dine,” says Clay Peterson, director of acquisitions and sales at JTS Interests.

Houston-based Creekstone is planning a 2005 grand opening for the $80 million Towne Center at Cedar Lodge on Jefferson Highway. The project will include 400,000 square feet of retail and office space. “The entire city of Baton Rouge has grown all the way around this property,” says Stephen Keller, Creekstone president.

The site is a former horse farm called Cedar Lodge Plantation, and its owners kept development at bay for 200 years as Baton Rouge expanded.

Residents were reluctant to see the picturesque parcel converted into a parking lot and big-box eyesore. “They didn't want certain big boxes — I won't mention any names — coming into the community,” Keller says. Specialty grocer Whole Foods is planning a 46,000-square-foot anchor store for the project, well within the city's 50,000-square-foot limit for new retail stores.

But big boxes are being embraced in other parts of town. In fact, Wal-Mart opened three new stores, including a $20 million super-center on College Drive, in the past 18 months.

“This is turning into a Wal-Mart town,” says Richard Steinberg, executive vice-president of New York-based Mall Properties, which owns the 1.6 million-square-foot Mall at Cortana.

Other big boxers have followed: Target opened its first 150,000 square-foot store in Weingarten Realty-owned Siegen Plaza; Bed Bath & Beyond, Linens N Things, David's Bridals and Ross Dress for Less have also opened stores in Baton Rouge.

Costco, however, has resisted. “We talked to Costco, but they haven't ventured into Baton Rouge yet,” says Jim Wilson, president of Montgomery, Ala.-based developer Jim Wilson & Associates, which owns the city's 1.4 million-square-foot Mall of Louisiana, plus an additional 30 acres of land. “We have a spot for them” when they're ready, he says. Some developers speculate that Wal-Mart's strong presence has scared away other stores. Wilson is planning a 140,000-square-foot, open-air fringe for the Mall of Louisiana to accommodate tenants that couldn't get into the mall, which boasts sales per square foot in the $435 to $440 range.

Bass Pro Shops is another fish that got away. Developers wooed the popular sporting goods destination store from Baton Rouge to Livingston, a smaller parish 15 miles away.

Despite an 8.6 percent drop in the population between 1990 and 2000, due in part to residents moving to bigger cities, such as New Orleans or smaller, neighboring parishes like Livingston to save on housing costs, there's still a demand for retail in mid-sized markets.

“There's been a little bit of an erosion in population,” says Peterson. “But people are moving back to the interior of the city because the demand here is real,” he says.

The consumers are still here, spending $4.5 million a year, says the U.S. Census Bureau. Baton Rouge's target shoppers, including college graduates from Louisiana State and Southern universities and retiring empty-nesters, are keeping the retail market booming in Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge residents pay an average of $140,000 for single-family homes on the southeastern end. In the northeast, in neighborhoods like Zachary, Pride, Greenwell Springs, Baywood and Deerford, where housing stock is older, two-bedroom homes average around $30,000, says Z.C. Dunaway, owner of locally based Dunaway Real Estate.

But there's very little retail movement in the downtown district, where government offices, medical facilities and petrochemical plants dominate.

“Retail used to thrive on Third Street, but there hasn't been a downtown shopping area for the last 25 or 30 years,” says Dunaway. Residential homes near the plant that were built in the 1940s have become run-down, which is why retailers have avoided the area altogether, says Dunaway. But, says Dottie Tarleton, vice-president of Stirling Properties, that's soon to change: “The state has built 3 million square feet of office space, so there will surely be a reemergence of downtown.”

Retail rents range anywhere between $12 for strip centers to $30 in a mall. Five years ago, rents ranged from $9 to $17 in the same locations. Cap rates are generally 10 percent for national tenants with long-term leases, says Ben Johnson, sales manager at NAI/Latter & Blum, but rates can slip down to 7 percent for riskier properties.

DEMOGRAPHIC OVERVIEW

  • Total Population: 409,667
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.9%
  • Per Capita Household Income: $19,790
  • Median Home Price: $98,800
  • Median Household Income: $37,224

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

RETAIL OVERVIEW

  • Vacancy Rate: 8.7 percent
  • Average Regional Mall Rent: $20.85 per sq. ft.
  • Average Power Center Rent: $9.07 per sq. ft.
  • Average Neighborhood Center Rent: $10.43 per sq. ft.

Source: NAI