Airport garners mixed opinions

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 23, 2002


LUTCHER – The public officials like it. The planners and contractors and economic development professionals like it.

But what do St. James Parish residents think about the Louisiana Airport Authority’s proposed intermodal shipping center?

If all goes as planned, it will link air, highway, rail and the Mississippi River in a unique facility between Donaldsonville and White Castle, and between the river and Belle Rose. The facility, already 10 years in the planning, could have all its permits by the end of 2004, and be ready to open for business by late 2008, with four 12,000-foot runways.

“I’m well satisfied where it’s at,” Lloyd Lambert of Gramercy, an outspoken critic of the project, said this week. “I don’t mind driving there but I wouldn’t want to be able to walk there. I wish ’em well.”

He was troubled, however, since planners are yet to name any of the investors in the multi-million dollar project, much of which comes from overseas. Lambert said he was more worried if it was placed so as to wipe out the community of Grand Point or disturb the serenity of Manresa retreat center near Convent.

Joseph Samrow Sr. of Gramercy said St. James Parish will likely get some jobs out of the deal, but had mixed emotions. “I’m not sure what historical sites may be lost.”

A review of a state map of historical sites notes several sites in the primary site region, all along Louisiana Highway 405. These include the Hohen Solms settlement area, the remaining outbuildings of Germania Plantation, the remaining outbuildings of Mulberry Grove Plantation, the former 1900-era Elsie school, built for Elsie Plantation but now a private home, the approximate site of Cuba Plantation and Woodstock Plantation, the tiny community of Modeste, the ruins of Africa Plantation, the New Hope Plantation and the Evan Hall sugar mill and slave cabins.

Samrow continued as to the project, “They have promises of financing, but with the stock market, who knows?”

At an LAA meeting held Aug. 15 in Baton Rouge, Winfield Beyea of URS Corp. and project manager identified the top two selected sites, evaluated from at least 50 and reviewed through criteria such as population, wetlands, available acreage, community acceptance and constructability.

The primary 25,300-acre site is perched in a major bend of the river and compresses all the elements of the intermodal facility, and straddles Iberville (45 percent), Ascension (54 percent) and Assumption (1 percent) parishes.

At that meeting, St. James Parish President Dale Hymel Jr. expressed his disappointment the primary site was not located in St. James Parish, hurt economically in recent years with the loss of major industries.

However, the secondary site under consideration has a sizeable chunk of acreage in St. James Parish. This 29,000-acre alternate site has 2 percent in Iberville, 55 percent in Ascension, 25 percent in Assumption and 18 percent in St. James Parish.

Blaise Gravois of M&H Builders in South Vacherie, a vocal supporter of placing the cargo facility on the West Bank of St. James Parish, was likewise disappointed, but remains optimistic the parish will reap some benefit.

“I’ve always said it would benefit St. James Parish,” Gravois said. “I’m still supporting it 100 percent.”

E.V. Cazenave of Cazenave Ford, a River Road landmark business in Vacherie since 1916, is not so optimistic.

“It’s not going to help this end of the parish,” he said. “It might help the Donaldsonville area, but everything’s going to 3127.”

Two LSU students from Lutcher shared their own concerns, having friends in the area where families will be displaced.

“I’m glad we didn’t get it,” said Joni Copponex. “It might’ve gotten more work, but it may have driven away some people.”

Rachel Hoover, the current East St. James Farm Bureau Queen and the newly crowned Miss St. James sugar queen, likewise said, “I’ve learned how much agriculture is part of our lives. However, this would destroy family businesses, and we’re a family-based community.”

Lejeane Luke, a convenience store clerk in Vacherie, added, “I feel it would work both ways – it would bring a lot of jobs but mess up the roads.”

She did acknowledge any influx of jobs would help the area and said it would likely help the economic development of the West Bank. “It needs to be built up around here,” Luke said. “It may even put street lights on 3127.”

The master plan for development of the project is due to be completed in spring 2003, selection of the major developer will be in mid-2003, satisfy federal environmental concerns by the end of 2004, complete land acquision by 2005, begin construction by 2006 and possibly open the first phase in late 2008.