A local Fortune 500 business owner who strongly opposes St. George becoming the fifth parish municipality of East Baton Rouge told a judge on Tuesday that he believes creating a new town would have negative financial and social impacts on Baton Rouge.
John Engquist, who is also a developer, opted last year to have H&E Equipment Services annexed to the city of Baton Rouge rather than stay within the proposed city limits of St. George.
At the time, Engquist threatened to shut down his publicly traded company and leave the state if the company and its planned Materra residential development nearby were forced to stay in St. George.
During the trial of a lawsuit seeking to stop the establishment of the new city, Engquist said he believed White St. George’s majority boundaries were “racial,” a perception he said hurts his ability to recruit employees.
“Perception becomes reality,” he said.
H&E Equipment Services, a heavy construction rental company, employs 270 people at its Baton Rouge headquarters at Airline Highway and Pecue Lane, Engquist said.
“I have a huge stake here,” he said, noting that he’s lived in Baton Rouge since sophomore year and has six grandchildren. “I am very involved in this community.”
Engquist said his board pushed him to move the company to another city, but he resisted.
“Baton Rouge has a lot of problems – crime, trash, traffic, schools. All of this makes it difficult to recruit executive talent,” he said during questioning by Brett Furr, one of the mayor’s attorneys. ‘East Baton Rouge. President Sharon Weston Broome and Metro Council leader LaMont Cole.
Broome and Cole sued St. George organizers Chris Rials and Norman Browning to prevent the establishment of the new town.
Interviewed by Christine Peck, one of the attorneys representing Rials and Browning, Engquist admitted personally contributing $10,000 to the anti-St. George cause and that H&E Equipment contributed an additional $25,000.
In October 2019, approximately 59% – or 32,293 people – of the more than 54,000 registered voters living in the St. George area cast their ballots in the incorporation election, which was approved by a 54% margin at 46%.
Engquist admitted on Tuesday that he only sought annexation of his business last year, after the lawsuit was filed. He also said his board of directors began pushing him to move the company’s headquarters long before the St. George effort began.
“All of these issues with the city of Baton Rouge existed before the St. George incorporation movement,” Peck said.
“Yes,” Engquist agreed.
Previous annexations out of the proposed St. George area and within the city limits of Baton Rouge have included much of the Louisiana Mall, Notre Dame du Lac Regional Medical Center and Women’s Hospital, from the Siegen Lane Market, the Bluebonnet Campus of Baton Rouge General, the Costco store near Interstate 12 and the Airline Highway, and L’Auberge Baton Rouge.
Rials testified Monday on the opening day of the trial that neither race nor income played a role in carving out St. George’s boundaries.
The trial in the 19th Judicial District Court is expected to last at least a week. Retired 22nd Judicial District Judge Martin Coady hears the case.
In the lawsuit, Broome’s attorneys alleged that developers overstated projected revenues and understated expenses for the proposed town of about 86,000 people. They also said an estimated $48.3 million in annual revenue the parish town would lose if St. George’s incorporation occurred would hurt parish town services and trigger layoffs.
St. George’s supporters are pushing for a new municipality as a way to create a new school district and gain more control over how some of their tax money is spent. The proposed city budget would be built on sales tax revenues generated within its boundaries.
Lawyers for Broome and Cole say the voter-approved incorporation effort is fatally flawed because organizers failed to fully inform voters of the services that would be provided to its residents and never disclosed a plan for funding.
The mayor and Cole’s attorneys will continue to call witnesses on Wednesday. They’ve called at least 10 so far. The defense could call nearly three dozen witnesses.