Fri, Sep 09, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Baton Rouge gets higher


For centuries the city of Baton Rouge has played second fiddle to its bigger, brasher and hipper neighbor. But with New Orleans destroyed, the little known capital of Louisiana is suddenly finding itself in the unusual position of being the most desirable zip code in the state. One US newspaper described it as boomtown, with the housing market going through the roof, hotels full for miles around and stores and businesses doing a roaring trade.

When French explorers came upon what was to become the site of the city in 1699, they found sticks smeared with animal blood stuck into the ground to mark the hunting grounds of the Houmas and Bayougoulas Indians -- hence the moniker "Red Stick." But now instead of animals, it is houses that have become the most desirable prey in a city that has more than doubled its population since Hurricane Katrina swept in off the Gulf coast, from around 227,000 to over 600,000.

prices soaring

According to Judy Burkett, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors, house prices have risen more than 20 per cent since the storm, with more than 2,000 homes sold in less than 10 days. "I've got business to do, I'm too busy to give interviews," she said yesterday before hanging up the phone.

Stories abound of properties being bought without the purchaser bothering to look around. Kyle Peterson, who sells homes for Remax First Realtors, one of the biggest estate agents in the area, described the last 10 days as a "wild ride." The rental market in Baton Rouge was exhausted within 24 hours of the storm, and since then just about every house for sale has been snapped up as well.

"We've seen houses that would have been slow to sell go very quickly with full asking prices or above," he said.

"People who were thinking about selling are now putting their houses on the market to try to make the most of the bubble. People are offering cash by plundering their retirement funds or borrowing money from relatives just to make sure they don't miss out on a sale."

packed hotels

The hotel sector is no different. The Sheraton, just off Government Drive in the downtown district, has been full since the hurricane. In fact it has been more than full: several New Orleans companies have taken over the conference rooms in the hotel and casino, brought in army-style cots and lined them up in dormitory-style rows.

Despite the impossibility of getting a room more than 75 people have been calling every day, just in case a vacancy has arisen.

"People are pretty desperate," said Randi Shaffer, 22, front desk manager. "I had one woman come in who put her hand out and said: `Maybe this will help.' She was holding a US$100 bill, but I just had to tell her I was really sorry but there were no rooms."

The Sheraton has put up the full signs until October, but Shaffer believes it will be much longer than that before any of their current guests leave. "Where else do they have to go?" she said.

premium property

The commercial real estate market is also at a premium. The Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce has four people working full time updating the list of available office and industrial space, as major corporations, including the New Orleans law firm of Jones Walker, set up shop outside of the ruined city.

"Class C properties that have sat vacant for years are now being taken up by businesses looking for real estate," a spokesman woman said. "It is a tremendous boom. We know that some of this is temporary but we also know that some of it will be permanent, and we are just working hard to make sure that as much business stays in southern Louisiana as possible."

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