Iconic roadway gets just due

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 10, 2010



VACHERIE — Representatives from the 10-state Mississippi River Parkway Commission gathered on the front lawn of Oak Alley Plantation under the shade of 300-year-old oaks Thursday to celebrate the inclusion of Louisiana’s “Great River Road” into the National Scenic Byway system.

The Louisiana designation adds 717 miles of road on both sides of the Mississippi river to the program, said Susanne Barnet, managing director for the MRPC. She said the honor brings additional national and regional tourism promotion opportunities to the 18 Louisiana parishes the road winds through.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, which manages the scenic byway system, also bestowed the designation on segments of the Great River Road that run through parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, making the more than 3,000-mile road the longest National Scenic Byway in the country, Barnet said.

In addition to the national exposure that comes with the designation, Doug Bourgeois with the Louisiana Office of Tourism said the road is now open to apply for a series of federal grants to allow for expanded marketing and improved infrastructure.

“The goal of the grants is to enhance the traveler’s experience as they tour the road,” Bourgeois said. “More than $40 million of federal money is available for improving overlooks, adding interpretive centers, overlaying asphalt or any number of other things.”

The ceremony Thursday attracted more than 60 members of the parkway commission from all 10 states connected by the Mississippi River. Bourgeois said the group spent the afternoon touring other River Road destinations such as Houmas House and Laura plantations before ending the day at Oak Alley. He said the centuries old mansion would become the official icon of Louisiana’s portion of the Great River Road.

“It is the quintessential example of the cultural heritage of River Road through Louisiana,” Bourgeois said. “It embodies the spirit of what this designation is all about.”

According to a release from the parkway commission, the U.S. Department of Transportation bestows the National Scenic Byway designation to roads that possess archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational or scenic qualities. Bill Seratte, the pilot or director of the Parkway Commission, said the commission was created in 1992 when the northernmost portion of the Great River Road earned the Scenic Byway designation.

“Louisiana is now part of a byway system that stretches from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico,” Seratte said. “The road covers 109 counties or parishes and brings in about $21 billion for tourism annually.”

Seratte said tourism is a massive economic engine for the communities along the Mississippi River, with more than 340,000 jobs along the Great River Road. He said the industry is especially important in Louisiana, where roughly one out of every 12 people in the state are employed in some aspect of tourism.

“This is a great achievement for Louisiana and the entire 10-state MRPC organization,” Seratte said. “We are all so proud of the incredible historical, cultural, recreational and scenic assets found along Louisiana’s segment of the Great River Road. It is quite fitting that we are here in Louisiana to celebrate the capstone of this 10-state achievement.”

Jay Tusa, executive director for the River Parishes Tourist Commission, said he is looking forward to the increased national exposure the designation will bring to the region.

“A lot of what we do to promote the tourism opportunities in the River Parishes is on a national level,” Tusa said.

“This designation will give us much more visibility and shine an increasingly positive light on what we have to offer down here in plantation country.”