St. John growth ready to explode?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Top parish builders all expecting record year for homes, ‘06 and ‘07



LAPLACE — Is St. John Parish on the verge of a population explosion like never before?

Right on the heels of two recent announcements that 3,000 homes will be built here by two national companies, the three top St. John builders are also in agreement that the boom is about to happen.

While the parish has grown steadily at the 5 percent rate for nearly a decade, indications from those who should know are suggesting the big explosion may be just starting.

And Parish President Nickie Monica concurs, that the biggest population jump in decades may be just around the corner.

New residential building permits have inched over 200 a year in the past six years, reaching one permit short of the all-time record in 2005. Those numbers will, in all likelihood, be obliterated in the coming year-and-a-half, after the announcement in the past two weeks that New Millenium Homes and KB Home have planned 3,000 new homes in the next four years.

The growth was already showing up last year since the 268 new building starts in 2005 was in a year when Hurricane Katrina halted things for most builders much of the latter part of the year. Without the storm, a new record would probably have been achieved.

As 2006 has gotten underway, top St. John builders Joey Scontrino, Jimmie Gooden and Ray Leach are all predicting their biggest years yet. And incredibly, most agree that 2007 will be bigger than this year.

&#8220There are a number of reasons that we are about to explode here,” Scontrino, owner of Landcraft Homes said. &#8220There was an initial surge of people relocating here after the storm, but now St. John is looked at as the best alternative close to New Orleans. There is still great value here in a new home, and people see it as a safe place, and a nice community for their families.”

Part of the appeal for St. John has also been enhanced since St. Tammany, on the north shore, is so overloaded with people after Katrina.

St. Tammany’s population was 210,000 before the storm, then went up by 40,000 from Katrina. Only 10,000 of that increase has left, according to figures from the University of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, St. John had a growth of 5,000 after Katrina, but has seen almost 4,000 of those people leave. That offers a little more space to take newcomers as people consider returning to New Orleans, or moving to the suburbs.

Parish President Nickie Monica believes Katrina actually gave St. John a higher profile position, since many people didn’t even realize how nice it was to live here.

&#8220So many people discovered St. John during Katrina since they moved here, or came through after the storm,” he said. &#8220And now there is still so much uncertainty in New Orleans that many people coming back to the area are electing to live just outside the city in an area like St. John.”

Both Ray Leach, owner of Ray Leach Homes, and Jimmie Gooden, who owns Gooden Homes, concur that the growth for them in 2006 will be the biggest ever, with 2007 shaping up as a year to continue that upward trend.

&#8220The biggest year I’ve had building before just in St. John was about 25 homes, but in 2006 I think we will do maybe 50,” Leach said. &#8220I believe St. John is really ready to take off since the lack of homes available now in New Orleans is a problem, and St. John’s

growth in the past has brought enough amenities in terms of businesses to draw people here.”

Leach said the past growth in population has finally brought some national restaurants and businesses to St. John, which in turn, brings more people who like those amenities.

&#8220I remember when we got our first Wendy’s here many years ago. It was a huge deal. But now we’re getting other national companies and that is what is attracting more people to move here,” he added.

Gooden is right with his two homebuilding colleagues in seeing steady, and increasing growth, for his company.

He also sees the biggest year ever in 2006 with nearly 40 home starts just in St. John, after 12 starts in St. John in 2005.

&#8220St. John has become the best choice now for people who don’t want to live in New Orleans,” he explained. &#8220We have major roads coming through here, we have a great location between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and our home values are growing steadily.”

But Gooden echoed the thoughts of the other builders in hoping the infrastructure here can support the growth.

&#8220That worries me,” he said. &#8220We need another interstate exit, but I know that will be a long time coming and you can see our traffic is becoming a problem.”

Monica also is concerned about whether the sewer situation in St. John will be addressed in time to support the growth. There has been a critical situation here for years with the sewage capacity of the system, and even though the Parish Council now has approved money for a regional sewage plant, there continues to be disagreement about where it will go.

&#8220My office has made recommendations about where to put it, but the council just can’t seem to agree about how to solve the problem,” Monica said, clearly unhappy with the cooperation from the council. &#8220There was even a meeting called by a councilman recently to try and get the situation moving and only two councilmen showed up. Even the councilman who called the meeting didn’t show. It’s in their hands to make the decision on this, and they need to do it if we want to be able to handle all the growth.”

Scontrino remains the biggest builder in town by a large margin. He had 112 new home starts in St. John in 2005, and is aiming at perhaps as many as 200 in 2006. But he especially believes 2007 will be even bigger.

&#8220Our company will probably double its 2005 gross revenue,” he noted, pointing to his own subdivisions of Cole’s Landing (600 houses) and Summerlin (1,000 houses), just in St. John.

&#8220I think the storm was one thing that helped people rediscover St. John, and the demand for our homes has been unprecedented,” he stated.

Scontrino pointed to an especially amazing event the day he held an unadvertised open house for his new Cole’s Landing subdivision just west of LaPlace off Airline Highway.

&#8220We only made contacts through people who had expressed interest to us through sales people or on the web site. We had the open house on a Saturday and it was scheduled for noon. By 10:30, 150 people were there and we got commitments for the entire first phase of the subdivision. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he added. &#8220And that was without even being able to commit to the definite prices for the homes.”

Scontrino said most of the people had previously lived in the New Orleans area, and just wanted to get out of the city.

Leach also believes the former rush to the north shore in St. Tammany has changed, since they are overburdened with people, and also since they were hit harder by Katrina.

&#8220A lot of people have looked at the devastation, especially in Slidell, and don’t think they want to go there,” he said. &#8220We did better with the storm, and are more affordable here besides. Prices in St. Tammany are higher than they are here.”

Gooden agreed that affordability in St. John is a big plus.

&#8220I still have homes in the $120,000 to $140,000 range, which incredibly, is now a starter home,” he remarked. &#8220New Orleans people can’t find those kinds of prices in the city.”