I have waited months before writing this piece. I was afraid I would melt my keyboard keys if I tried too soon. This is about a collateral risk – a huge one – at the core of the Hwy. 3132 Extension municipal insanity.
Within a paragraph or two, the reader will want to know that my friends at Willis-Knighton Health System don’t know anything about me writing this. They certainly don’t need me or anyone else to defend them, but neither are they in position to point these facts out as I can.
Willis-Knighton’s leader of a near half-century, Jim Elrod, is wrapping up his book about what it has taken to build that healthcare giant. I was pleased to be offered a draft to read, and without revealing anything I should not, I can say it is, at minimum, a fascinating history not only of Willis-Knighton and its people, but also of Shreveport. In fact, considering what W-K has become in the hands of Jim and his Board and employees, the book is about how a lone faith-based institution came to, quite literally, anchor a middle-sized American city.
Opened in 1924 in the heart of West Shreveport, Tri-State Sanitarium competed successfully in its early history, but by the time Jim Elrod took the administrator’s job in 1965, it was in deep financial trouble. The early years of work in paying-off all its debts and re-positioning itself honed W-K to become the largest medical center in a multi-state area, with more than 350 physicians and 6,000 employees. Though I have no idea what the payroll is, or how much of our area’s economy is directly tied to W-K, I know its annual gross revenue of $1.38 million in 1965 grew to $2.28 billion in 2011. I know, too, that Shreveport is in deep, deep trouble without the economic and cultural engine it is.
What W-K could do, I suppose, like so many other providers of basic services, is cash in its chips. Given the fact of today’s social, cultural and political war that is American healthcare, such makes apparent sense. In today’s financial world, the new owner would be expected to empty the cash without one thought of W-K’s role in anchoring a struggling Shreveport.
What happens if W-K’s tens-of-millions to community organizations goes away, especially as governmental largesse rapidly disappears? What happens to West Shreveport if W-K’s lifelong corporate center at Hearne Avenue and Greenwood Road shuts down – as experts (?) have long recommended? How many of the thousands of jobs go away, jobs particularly suited to our workforce? What damage is done to LSU Medical Center if W-K’s support faded? What happens to our struggling daily newspaper and other such publications if those ad dollars disappear?
The point is, we have seen this movie before, and never liked its ending. What difference has it made that our banks, with few exceptions, are no longer locally-owned and run? How does it hurt us that a trip to our utility companies’ main offices begins at Shreveport Regional Airport? Do we care that people who receive most of our “customer complaints” about widespread, failing services don’t know Shreveport or Bossier from Sacramento or Boise?
Enter into this musing our mayor and other public officials, 90% or so of whom have not given a thought to any of this.
When Mayor Cedric Glover was, uh, how shall I say, “enlisted” last year to kill the Hwy. 3132 Extension to the Port, he wasn’t worried about the city. He had a job do to for the few he was serving – at the expense of the many he was not – as did another double-handful of other politicos and their merry minions scattered throughout government “service.” Then, much to the surprise of this cabal and a good number of witnesses, an honest man who was a bystander to their would-be dirty deed blew the whistle.
Glover’s response to the bomb explosion of opposition was to double-down: within a few weeks, at most, he had decided to punish Willis-Knighton. Given their logical and strong concern about the safety of residents and staff at its $100,000,000-plus property on Flournoy-Lucas, the Willis-Knighton board and executive staff moved quickly to breathe life back into the Extension, which is to say, to keep Flournoy-Lucas from becoming a life-threatening 18-wheeler drag strip.
Two officials involved in this sordid tale have corroborated what the related documents detail: Glover directed the design of a 3132 Extension route option which would literally take-out W-K’s The Oaks property. That route has come to be known as “Option A,” and lest the reader discard such apparent craziness out-of-hand, documents we have obtained through Public Records Requests prove the “craziness” was viewed among some at the top of Louisiana DOTD as, instead, “the plan.” Bearing witness to that incredible fact is one more: all attempts to have “Option A” stricken from the list of routes now being studied in a so-called “feasibility study” have failed.
It’s one thing for an appointee of the governor who lives in Baton Rouge to sanction such a move, but it’s something else when it comes from our mayor and many politically (and otherwise) aligned local water-carriers.
So, here is my point: no elected official – and I know this fact very, very well – has reared up in open, unqualified, aggressive leadership of opposition to what has happened, and continues to happen. Not one thinks this is important enough to take political – real – charge of the continuing humbug that is “3132.” No public official has taken the point in using his or her power to stop the mis- and malfeasance and get the Extension built, fast, like they manage somehow to do in Bossier. No public official went public to object to the recent increase in the speed limit on Flournoy-Lucas, DOTD’s version of flipping us all off. Some public official has to care enough to take responsibility for seeing to it that the insanity stops … here … and now … every piece of it.
When we contemplate what Shreveport once was, and about what chance it has to ever be that again, we have to be honest enough with ourselves to admit that our wounds are purely self-inflicted.
This new disease of deliberate risk to critically important local institutions is simply too dangerous to ignore, but that’s what we seem to do these days.
I like to think I would respond as Willis-Knighton has, take the abuse – real and intended – and hang-in with a political leadership that just doesn’t care about its importance.
I like to think I would.
For any reader who may not know, this and all other such commentary I forward to you has been done strictly in the public interest. No compensation of any kind has been solicited, offered or accepted for this work.
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