An industrial hub with easy Southern rhythm

Getting an accurate reading for the future of Baton Rouge would take an especially high-powered crystal ball. The present recession clouds the long-term outlook, and the natural gas situation further distorts the picture.

Moreover, some of the growth figures have to be adjusted for inflation. Allowance must be made for the fact that Louisiana has been a poor state playing catch-up with the rest of the nation, and is still experiencing the sort of rural-to-urban migration many places worked through years ago. The mighty petrochemical complex is ''mature industry,'' arguably headed for long-term decline, even if it does have a completely free market for natural gas, officials concede.

Still, Baton Rouge is a beneficiary of the resource wealth of Louisiana; oil and gas will be firing the engines of the American economy for some time to come. The port is another asset that's not going to go away.

And owing at least in part to its capital status, Baton Rouge seems to have reached a critical mass as a city. People come here to study and end up staying, as did Pat Screen, a native of New Orleans native who is now mayor-president of the combined city-parish (county) government. Or they come to serve in state government and end up staying on even after a change of administration.

Instititutions have made similar shifts - Blue Cross-Blue Shield has moved most of its Louisiana operations from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, for example.

The only city of any real size between Lafayette to the west and New Orleans, Baton Rouge is the place where not only the top management, but many of the rank-and-file workers in plants up and down the river, have settled.

When people talk about Baton Rouge overtaking New Orleans as the state's premier city by the year 2000, as Mayor-President Screen does (''There's no doubt in my mind''), it's hard to dismiss the prediction out of hand as mere boosterism.

This city has developed at a rhythm different from some other Sunbelt growth areas. Many of them experienced a watershed in the '60s, or even the '70s, as the electronics industry began to explode. The corresponding point in Baton Rouge came during the 1950s, when America's love affair with plastics began to blossom.

''The catalyst that started the development of Baton Rouge and this general chemical corridor was that as we developed our technology we found more and more uses of gas as part of the product, rather than just the fuel,'' says Charles McCoy, chairman of the Louisiana National Bank.

As vinyl replaced leather or cloth replaced automobile upholstery, as synthetics took the place of natural fibers, and plastic plumbing was run into the homes of postwar America, Baton Rouge's chemical corridor prospered.

But for all the industrial presence, Baton Rouge remains part of the gracious South of plantation homes and paddle fans. It's a city where a restaurant patron will greet by name and with a handshake three or four waiters who have served him on previous occasions.

The prevailing low-key friendliness is an important part of what Baton Rougeans think of when they speak of ''quality of life'' here.

Fierce streams of traffic whoosh along Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway, past people selling shrimps (''10 lbs. $19'') from pickup trucks parked along the broad shoulders of the road. The sprawling strip development is a testament to the survival here of the ''Ain't nobody gonna tell me what I can put up on my own property'' city-planning ethic.

But away from the jumble of fast-food eateries and interchangeable malls there are fine restaurants (with seafood a specialty, of course), handsome brick subdivisions, and lots of wonderful old moss-bearded oaks and cypresses.

With all the heavy industry, one would expect environmental issues to be a concern. A recent national television network report on alleged contamination of the city water supply by toxic waste was uniformly denounced to this correspondent as ''alarmist'' and political grandstanding by a state official interviewed in the report.

The prevailing feeling seems to be that local industries have sinned grievously but are now on the road to repentance and reformation. And Republican Gov. David C. Treen is striving to make his mark as an environmentalist.

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