Tri-parish presidents reflect on efforts to strengthen the region

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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LAPLACE — St. Charles, St. John the Baptist Parish and St. James parishes welcomed a new trio of parish presidents in early 2020, just before the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastation of Hurricane Ida cast unprecedented challenges on the River Parishes.

Despite this, the three parish presidents have worked individually within their own parishes and collectively as a team to strengthen the region, especially in regards to flood protection, infrastructure, and creating an environment to attract and retain business development.

Pete Dufresne, Jaclyn Hotard and Matthew Jewell recently participated in a parish president roundtable hosted by the River Region Chamber of Commerce at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie.

“Our parishes directly affect one another, and we have continued efforts to work closely together in collaborating projects that cross our region,” St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne said.

As St. James Parish rejoiced in what seemed to be a return to normalcy, Hurricane Ida reminded Dufresne of the importance of preparing for storms. Progress on drainage infrastructure throughout 2021, especially improvements and repairs to the Vacherie levee completed just one week prior to Ida, offered significant protection from storm surge and flooding. Another ongoing flood protection effort is the alternate alignment of the West Shore Levee project, intended to connect the two existing ring levees.

During the last few years, St. James Parish has made a commitment that no work order requests will go unanswered. This has been achieved through the implementation of an online work order system and a corresponding citizen service center to provide transparency for all work orders placed in the system. Thus far in 2022, St. James Parish has already completed more than 13,000 work orders, compared to 7,000 in 2021.

One of Dufresne’s goals is to attract more business development, particularly on the West Bank. Development on the West Bank is expected to include a new high school and a new wellness center that a local hospital is proposing to build. The parish is in the design phase of a new senior center and has recently partnered with the ARC to ensure the most vulnerable and deserving citizens in the parish are taken care of. Small business owners have united through the recent introduction of St. James Parish Market Days.

St. John Parish President Jaclyn Hotard is just as excited today as she was when she began her term as parish president despite the challenges the region has faced, and she remains hopeful for the future.

Hurricane recovery efforts remain underway in St. John Parish, and more than 1 million cubic yards of debris have been collected within the parish. The state quickly activated temporary housing for affected residents, and the continued progress of the West Shore Levee Project, estimated to reach substantial completion in 2024, offers a promise of future storm surge protection. The 18.5-mile levee alignment will enhance protection not only in St. John, but also in neighboring parishes.

Other beautification and flood management projects ongoing in St. John include the $6.2 million LA SAFE Airline & Main Complete streetscaping project, the Belle Terre Streetscape Project, the Maurepas Diversion Project, and the Shoreline Protection Project, which involves design of a $9.5 million protective barrier along Lake Pontchartrain.

The Economic Development Department has hit the ground running, leading to St. John Parish being recognized as a Louisiana Development-Ready Community. For the first time in parish history, St. John has partnered with Capital Area Finance Authority to provide down payment and closing cost assistance to residents. The Business Training Center and FASTTRAC Small Business programs are ongoing, and the parish is working with Louisiana Economic Development to help small businesses grow.

In St. Charles, Parish President Matt Jewell is also moving forward efforts to increase flood protection while promoting the development of new residential neighborhoods and small businesses.

St. Charles Parish is actively recovering from Ida while facing challenges from labor market and supply shortages. Changes in flood insurance, including the implementation of Risk Rating 2.0, have presented a threat to the local economy. Jewell has hosted town hall meetings to convene with officials and help residents gain insight on how these changes will affect them.

In terms of development, the Mississippi River has proved to be an asset to the region, and Jewell believes its full potential is unrealized. Recent dredging efforts have made the Mighty Mississippi even mightier, allowing for an increase in commercial business operations.

“We have a lot of work to do getting new industries and businesses to utilize the river,” Jewell said.

According to Jewell, economic development involves taking the time to sit down and have conversations with existing and potential business owners about what they need to be successful. Early in his administration, Jewell addressed concerns about the convoluted permitting process with a one-stop shop for business development. He also plans to promote a “keep it local” campaign and pursue beautification efforts through the removal of blighted properties along the business corridor.