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Baton Rouge is still there, but it's not the same

BATON ROUGE, La.—New Orleans residents have long considered this capital city 70 miles up the interstate a sleepy college town, good for catching a Louisiana State University football game but far removed from the eclectic revelry of the Crescent City.

Now they consider it home.

Local officials said the parish's population of about 415,000 could swell to more than 600,000, maybe even double. It became the biggest city in Louisiana almost overnight.

"The Baton Rouge we live in and grew up in is no longer," said Mike Walker, an East Baton Rouge Parish councilman. "These people are here to stay."

A local radio DJ told listeners this week "Folks, we are New Orleans."

The population boom affects residents here in every way, from gridlocked traffic to long lines at the supermarket. Parking lots are full, gas stations are overwhelmed and drugstores are packed.

"To suddenly have all these people without building anything new, it squeezes everything," said Christopher Brown, 40, a resident of 10 years. "It's like living the big-city life in a small city. It's always crowded."

City officials, still overseeing repairs to stoplights knocked out during the storm, have asked residents to be patient.

The shifting population also brings a shifting sensibility. The two cities have many characteristics in common, but in some fundamental ways they're very different.

The biggest gap is income. New Orleans families are more likely to be poor; 40 percent have incomes below $25,000 a year, compared with 32 percent in Baton Rouge. The typical male worker in Baton Rouge makes $4,000 a year more than his counterpart in New Orleans.

While both cities have a sizable percentage of people living under the federal poverty line, Baton Rouge has a more pronounced middle class. In New Orleans, it's easy to detect the two extremes: dire poverty and ostentatious wealth.

"In New Orleans, especially in the place that's really inundated with floodwater, it's dominated by rich and poor," said James Wilson Jr., the assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

While it's hard to guess the income levels of the evacuees streaming into Baton Rouge—even many well-off people are suddenly without cash—a majority will most likely be poor, Wilson said. That's because many of New Orleans' poorest folks didn't have the means to get out of the city.

There are other cultural differences. As a state capital and home to Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge developed a more polished professional class than the Big Easy.

"Baton Rouge is pretty much your all-American city, or at least your all-American Southern city," Wilson said.

Now that city is changing in ways both cultural and economic. Evacuees are snapping up every home or condominium on the Baton Rouge real estate market. New Orleans-based businesses, their buildings damaged or surrounded by water, are leasing empty office, industrial and warehouse space.

"They're selling property without showing it," said Deborah Johnson of Wampold Companies, a property manager. "It's crazy."

Real estate agents said the onslaught of people seeking homes or apartments began the moment Baton Rouge regained power Tuesday morning. Every apartment in a 50-mile radius was taken quickly.

David McKey, the owner of Phelps and McKey Realtors, said his office fielded 500 calls in two days. Usually, 50 calls a day is considered good.

Some people, hoping to sign three-month or six-month leases, first asked about rental houses. When those were gone, they started buying them.

Houses that have sat on the market for months sold in a day as mortgage companies shortened the application process for buyers with minimum credit scores.

"A lot of people are passing up on inspections," McKey said. "A lot of them are putting down pretty substantial down payments, and we've done quite a few cash sales."

Ben Johnson, sales manager for Latter and Blum Commercial Sales and Leasing, said hundreds of businesses had contacted his company searching for anything that could be turned into an office or a warehouse.

About half the businesses signed short-term leases and half said they wanted to establish a permanent presence in Baton Rouge, he said.

"Some of them plan to stay," Johnson said. "This isn't a temporary move for a lot of them. The city is going to be changing quite a bit."


(Branch reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jeff Claassen and Jennifer Autrey of the Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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