Lakes project shows how Foundation selects civic initiatives

Lakes project shows how Foundation selects civic initiatives


By Bill Balhoff, Foundation board chair
Seeing is believing.

Like the blossoming of some great, repellent flower, a months-old algae bloom has left no room for doubt: The time to save our lakes has come.

The Foundation, with support from our members and donors, had produced a $1 million master plan in 2016 to preserve the University/ City Park lakes. The plan was designed to solve a serious problem that was unfolding out-of-sight. Season after season, bottom-dwelling plants were growing prolifically, then dying and decaying, piling up layer upon layer of sedimentary mud. Unseen, the bottom of the lakes was rapidly rising and the water was growing shallower.

Last year’s hot summer brought a slick, green scum coating to the surface to City Park Lake, manifesting for all to see the troubles predicted by our master plan’s research: Now less than 3 feet deep, the lakes were slowly turning to mudflats. The algae persisted throughout a warm fall and continued, well into winter. Residents, runners and picnicking park-goers were revolted by the sickly, stinking bloom and complained that no one was taking action.

Meanwhile at the Foundation, we were nearing a final arrangement with state and local government agencies for funding the implementation of the lakes master plan. With algae fouling the waters well beyond summer, the partners in the project decided there was no more time to waste: Reviving and preserving the lakes—a crowning jewel among Baton Rouge’s public places—must happen now. Public officials signed a memorandum of understanding that dedicates $50 million to the project.

For their commitment, I thank our partners: Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and the Metro Council; Gov. John Bel Edwards and the people overseeing state agencies; BREC commissioners and Superintendent Corey Wilson; LSU President/Chancellor F. King Alexander, LSU Athletics Director Scott Woodward and LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation.

It’s worthwhile to consider a little background on how the lakes project came about, because this initiative offers a window into how we select our projects for the common good.

The Foundation is a place-based organization, one among 700 community foundations making grants; a handful of them, including ours, are specially committed to improving life for all people in their regions through civic projects. Our service region is the Baton Rouge metropolitan area, with affiliates in Covington and Lake Charles covering the rest of South Louisiana. New Orleans has its own community foundation, as does Lafayette.

The Foundation’s civic projects originate from ideas brought to us by our donors or from requests by government leaders. For example, city-parish government asked the Foundation to lead and underwrite the Baton Rouge Health District master plan. It is now being executed through a nonprofit led by top officers of local health care providers.

The lakes project, meanwhile, was prompted by data and observations. We knew the lakes were increasingly shallow, devolving into the swamps from which they’d been created. Unless steps were taken to fix the problem, Baton Rouge would lose an iconic public landmark. This was of special concern to us since one of the declared goals of the Foundation is to build more civic spaces where all are welcome, like our revitalized downtown. Such places allow residents to encounter their neighbors from all strata of society and, sometimes, to become friends. At the very least, sharing public places with diverse populations serves to level some of the walls that otherwise divide us.

The lakes already do this, drawing people together from all quarters of the parish. Restoring and enhancing the lakes within City Park will attract even more people to this civic green space where they can enjoy a stroll or a jog; photograph migratory pelicans within a larger bird sanctuary; push their children on swings at a newly built park on Dalrymple; rent kayaks along City Park Lake and row under a new bridge connecting to University Lake; or simply enjoy a sunny spring day alongside each other.

The crisis in our lakes, so long hidden below the surface, is now evident and measurable. The restoration project will remedy it. But for the Foundation, the project will also have value that’s harder to quantify: It will affirm our donors’ faith that, working together, we can build shared civic spaces that benefit everyone. When it’s completed and residents can look out across clear, sparkling lakes and beautiful new parklands, the next big project for the common good will become that much easier to accomplish. After all, seeing is believing.

Category: >>


Stay connected with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Get breaking announcements, learn about partnership opportunities, and see what’s happening in our community now.

Newsletter Sign Up

"*" indicates required fields