Poised and prepared?: Iberville Parish hoping residential, commercial growth catches up with steadiness of industry, agriculture

PETER SILAS PASQUA ppasqua@postsouth.com
Construction on an Ochsner Medical Facility is underway along La. 1 in Plaquemine. Iberville Parish has been without a medical center since River West closed its doors in 2009. The Parish council spearheaded the Greenfield site because of the need. 
POST SOUTH PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

PLAQUEMINE – The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Area is growing by leaps and bounds and some say it is on the verge of becoming the next great southern city.

The area includes the parishes of Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana.

While all have experienced growth in some form or another, others have far exceeded their neighbors in the aspects of commercial and residential development.

According to the U.S. Census, approximately 27,319 new residents called East Baton Rouge Parish home from 2000 to 2010, a modest 6.6 percent increase compared to 36,212 new residents in Livingston Parish, which is a 39.4 percent increase and 29,588 new residents in Ascension Parish or a 38.6 percent increase over the same time period.

On the other hand, Iberville Parish has only seen 67 new residents call it home over the past 10 years from 33,320 to 33,387, a 0.2 percent increase according to the census. The minuscule rise is a reflection of what the parish has experienced over basically the past century.

The parish saw its largest growth population-wise during the mid-19th century before seeing another spike at the turn of the century that increased population to 30,954 citizens in 1910, not many more than today's count 100 years later.

But as Iberville Parish may lack behind in residential and commercial growth, it is on the forefront of industrial growth, according to parish leaders.

Economic Growth

Iberville Chamber of Commerce President Hank Grace believes the parish is on the brink of an economic development boom.

"I believe our time is coming," Grace said. "But it is a different ball game over here on the west side than it is across the river."

Iberville Parish has a total area of 653 square miles but it is split in two by the chief river of the largest drainage system in North America – the Mississippi River – with most of its land lying to the west of it.

Many agree much of the growth in the metropolitan area can be attributed to easy access to an interstate system running between the state's largest mucipalities in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

However, Grace noted 1,163 new residents have moved inside the incorporated areas of St. Gabriel, a municipality on the east bank of Iberville Parish, over the past 10 years, which is a 21 percent increase to 6,677 citizens.

"It is St. Gabriel's time right now," Grace said. "It is starting to see a spill over and it is all coming into that area. It just lends itself to being the ideal location for residential growth."

Grace credits the city's proximity to the LSU campus - the state's flagship university – as among the reasons for the spike in residential growth.

Iberville Parish Chief Administrative Officer Edward "Lucky" Songy agrees.

"St. Gabriel is growing by leaps and bounds because it is between two metropolitan areas," Songy said.

The city is currently undertaking a project for affordable housing which will include approximately 150 new units, while apartment complexes and strip malls along La. 30 are in preliminary plans for the area, according to Songy.

"I don't know where they are coming from but they are moving there," Songy said.

Industry

Industrial growth has never been a problem for Iberville Parish and new businesses and expansions in that sector are on the horizon, according to officials.

"We do have a lot of industry on both sides of the river that create a lot of jobs and opportunities for growth and expansion," Songy said. "Everybody who has a business contributes to the tax base of the parish. Even the prison system."

The parish is home to several large entities, most notably Dow Chemical, Shintech and Axiall, formerly Georgia Gulf, and Songy said there are more large-scale projects on the way.

For example, EuroChem, a fertilizer company based out of Moscow, announced intentions in July to construct an ammonia and urea production plant in Louisiana and is evaluating two final sites, one of which is in Iberville Parish.

The project is estimated to create 200 new direct jobs with an $11.6 million annual payroll, while the $1.5 billion investment will yield approximately 2,000 new construction jobs over a four-year period.

City of Plaquemine Mayor Mark "Tony" Gulotta understands the importance of these industries' success.

"They are our largest taxpayers and our largest employers," Gulotta said. "When they do well, our government does well."

Grace believes the parish is "blessed" to be located along the Mississippi River which allows another mode of transportation of goods produced at these plants.

"Because of the chemical industry being here that ties into sales tax dollars, the parish receives sufficient funds to do the things that need to be done to put in infrastructure," Grace said.

Infrastructure

The main though fares in Iberville Parish include Interstate 10 toward the north eastern end of the parish and La. 1 and La. 30 running parallel on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. There are many other roads that connect little towns including the River Road that follows the bank on each side of the river.

"There is no doubt that the state highways through Plaquemine need to be better maintained," Gulotta said. "It is horrible, especially the two-mile stretch through the city. Eden and Church Streets are in deplorable conditions."

But with the opening of Enterprise Boulevard in recent years toward the western part of the city, a virtual loop was created around Plaquemine while opening up new areas to expansion.

"If you don't have the roads to get you to pieces of property, people are not going to move or build here," Grace said. "You must have infrastructure in place to support residential development. You can't put the cart before the horse."

According to Songy, undeveloped land along and around Enterprise is currently being studied for potential subdivisions and a charter school.

"I know of the interest," Songy said.

Gulotta also noted that the City of Plaquemine is currently in the process of upgrading its sewer treatment and power plants with either new facilities or technology.

"Plaquemine can handle more growth," Gulotta said. "I don't see a problem expanding because of infrastructure but you must have land to start."

Agriculture

Iberville Parish's economy has long relied on agriculture through the years, most notably the farming of sugarcane.

The parish also is the eastern boundary to the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland and swamp in the United States, and includes the fishing communities of Bayou Sorrel and Bayou Pigeon.

The northern communities of Rosedale, Grosse Tete and Maringouin continue to operate significant agricultural operations and White Castle is home to the second largest sugar mill in the state – Cora Texas Manufacturing Company.

"Agriculture is a very important piece of economic development here," Grace said. "You can't just turn everything over and put concrete on it. You must have a balance."

Songy also noted the production of soybeans, cattle farming and horse raising are other sectors that can be found in the parish.

Amenities

For a community to be economically viable for potential residents, a strong school system, up to date infrastructure and medical facilities are required, according to Grace.

The Iberville Parish Council has partnered with Ochsner to build an emergency room within the parish and the Iberville Parish School System continues to show improvements on standardized tests while Baton Rouge Community College recently unveiled its new $3.5 million Westside Campus, an extension that offers trades in electrical, welding and pipefitting along with many nursing related courses.

"You must have that first," Grace said. "You can't just throw a subdivision together on a piece of property and expect people to build houses there.

"People want to live where they know there is a good medical facility when they need it and we are making huge strides and progress in public education."

Plaquemine was once home to River West Medical Center, which was shut down due to economics and management in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2009 that left the building structurally damaged.

Songy said Iberville Parish Government inquired about the acquisition of the facility but studies found it unfeasible and a Greenfield site was in better interest.

"I think a good, sound, reputable medical facility certainly encourages growth both residential and commercial," Songy said. "People look at what a community has to offer."

So when the Parish Council received half of the $44 million in hurricane recovery funds allocated to the parish's unincorporated areas, it dedicated the entire $22 million to obtaining a medical facility and partnered with Ochsner.

The structure is currently under construction and will offer a wide array of services including a freestanding emergency room, rotating physicians and a full-scale radiology department.

"This is what is best for us and I think it will draw from a large surrounding area," Songy said. "Not just Plaquemine and Iberville Parish but parts of Ascension, Assumption and West Baton Rouge as well.

"They will be able to stitch you up or remove a bullet. Hopefully, it grows and grows enough to increase its capacity and turn into a small hospital facility."

Commercial

While commercial development has skyrocketed in metropolitan areas east of the river, it too has remained stagnant in most parts of Iberville Parish.

"You are only going to get commercial development when you have people moving in," Gulotta said. "Developers follow people. People don't follow developers."

A shopping center along Belleview Road has opened within the last six months that includes Dollar Tree and Pizza Hut but other signs of new business is hard to find.

"When businesses look to locate in a certain area, they look at the number of rooftops and people," Grace said. "Because the population has been pretty much stagnant we haven't gotten our share of retail type businesses to move in but hopefully now that we have some of the infrastructure in place, it is just a matter of time before people will see what Iberville has to offer."

Residential

As population growth in Iberville Parish continues to show no signs of increasing, the question of affordable housing availability arises.

"We are lacking in subdivisions available for people to build new houses in," Gulotta said. "Young people preferably want to build in new subdivisions where all the houses are basically the same size and value."

Gulotta praised the development of The Island Country Club and Golf Course subdivision in Plaquemine that currently has approximately 50 lots available but noted many people are moving to West Baton Rouge Parish where there are currently about 200 lots available in various price ranges.

"The Island is the only reason we have gotten any growth but we just need more of it," Gulotta said. "I truly believe people want to build here as bad as the traffic is going across the bridge in the mornings and evenings and I do think there are tracts that we can get developers interested in."

Songy said development is a complicated process that includes the installation of water and gas lines along with the subdivision of lots and building of streets with curbs and a gutter all at the price of the developer. Only then, will the parish decide whether those roads will become a part of its system.

"I guess it depends on what people can afford but there are plenty of houses for sale in the area right now," Songy said. "However, you must have a willing buyer and seller to sell a piece of property and house."

The Chamber has made a concerted effort to attract developers through discussions with area landowners, according to Grace.

"We have made a commitment to work with landowners to try and get residential development here in Iberville Parish and I think we are going to be successful," Grace said. "Those large families have farmed those large pieces of property for many years and those businesses have done well for them. We want them to maintain that livelihood but we also want them to understand the benefits of bringing new people into the parish."

A bridge?

After all is poked and prodded, no one will argue what kind of impact a new Mississippi River bridge crossing in Iberville Parish would have on economic development in the area.

There are no less than eight bridges that span the river in south Louisiana but none within the parish. It long had two ferry crossings at the Plaquemine Ferry and White Castle Ferry but the later ceased operations this past summer.

It is roughly 35 miles on either side of the river between the Horace Wilkinson Bridge connecting Baton Rouge of East Baton Rouge Parish with Port Allen of West Baton Rouge Parish and the Sunshine Bridge built in St. James Parish downriver from Donaldsonville.

The most recent bridges completed spanning the river include the John James Audubon Bridge connecting St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish with New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish, the Veterans Memorial Bridge connecting Wallace in St. John the Baptist Parish with Gramercy also in St. James Parish and the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge connecting Destrehan and Hahnville both of St. Charles Parish.

But still, there has never been a bridge in either Iberville or Ascension Parishes.

"It is our turn," Grace said. "There is no doubt about. Every parish along the river from here to New Orleans has a bridge. Whether Iberville Parish has been slighted or not – I am not sure that is the case but I don't think we are dealing with some of the same problems as in the past.

"We are hopeful that the next river crossing chosen for a bridge will be here. I think that will lead or at least enhance the opportunities for us. We need to work together to make sure this gets done because it will be a huge plus for us."

Grace noted that many potential crossings have been identified through studies previously conducted regarding a proposed Baton Rouge Loop and there is harmony among legislators to work together.

"It is just a matter of convincing the right people that there is a need for another bridge and hopefully, the Chamber will be able to do that," Grace said.

A bridge spanning the Mississippi River located somewhere between Plaquemine and White Castle would be a boost to the parish, according to Gulotta.

"Absolutely, we need a bridge," Gulotta said. "That would definitely help spur development but how serious the state would be on that I don't know.

"I am an optimist and don't want to say never. Things might happen but it is definitely a decade or two away and that is not going to help us in the meantime."

The Iberville Parish Council joined five other parishes in the process of planning a new project called the West Bank Connector last spring that would include a bridge within the parish.

The council pledged $150,000 for the initial phrases of the proposed $1.65 billion project, $100,000 less than the other parishes because the new bridge would cross the Mississippi River near LSU and St. Gabriel.

"A bridge would certainly open up areas to economic development," Songy said. "I know it is expensive and would take a lot of time but we desperately need one."

Only time will tell if a bridge will be built to connect us and if Iberville Parish can experience the same economic growth as some of its neighbors.