Is there hope for Donaldsonville and west bank Ascension Parish?

The West Bank Industrial overlay (River Plex Maga Park of Louisiana)

The plight of Donaldsonville and West Bank Ascension dominated the most recent meeting of the Parish Council Finance Committee.  President Clint Cointment’s administration is devoting an awful lot of time and resources to improve the lives of 10% (or so) of Ascension’s population west of the Mighty Mississippi.

POVERTY.  UNEMPLOYMENT.

The last best hope to address those soul-crushing realities can be found in Modeste, where 17,000 acres was overlaid with industrial zoning by the Parish Council on August 6, 2015.  “The West Bank Industrial Overlay” abuts Iberville Parish to the west, wedged into the horseshoe bend of the Mississippi River to the north.  Approaching seven years later and the idea has failed to generate much in the way of new industry, and west bank Ascension Parish languishes behind its east bank counterpart in every socioeconomic indicator.

Anticipating a dearth of interest, the ordinance included the caveat:

“In order to address the possibility that there will be no interest in industrial development in this overlay, the overlay will need to be renewed by the Ascension Parish Council every two years from the date of creation of August 6, 2015.  Before the Council takes action to renew, (AEDC) may make a recommendation to the Parish Council stating whether the overlay should be renewed or not.”

The most recent renewal of the overlay zone was done by resolution on August 19, 2021.

Whether or not the RiverPlex MegaPark of Louisiana (the overlaid area’s new brand) ever generates a living wage for anyone, Ascension Parish Government is attempting to address many of the ills, call them “quality of life” issues, associated with poverty and joblessness.  The task is daunting.

Consider this excerpt from USA Today (February 29, 2020), referenced by CAO John Diez during the March 7 Finance meeting:

“Donaldsonville ranks as the worst city to live in in Louisiana and the second worst in the United States. A poor city, Donaldsonville’s median annual household income is just $22,716. Additionally, a staggering 39.4% of city residents live below the poverty line. The area’s low incomes are likely attributable in part to a weak job market. Over the last five years, overall employment in the city declined by 4.9%. The city’s 14.3% five-year unemployment rate is well more than double the comparable U.S. unemployment rate.”

NOTE:  The most recent Census estimates had 38.5% of Donaldsonville residents living below the poverty line.

“Donaldsonville has a lot of problems,” CAO Diez admitted with all-too-rare candor.  “But it has twice the promise…history and character.”  While hope springs eternal, history and character don’t pay the water bill.

The Cointment administration is committing resources (and dollars) on the West Bank like no administration before it…and it is not close.  With apparent universal buy-in from the governing authority, i.e. the Parish Council, Diez on the point with the more than capable Project Manager Bill Dawson in the trenches, this is more than just talk.

And there’s been a lot of talk over the decades as the City of Donaldsonville and its west bank brethren have endured an economic death spiral.  (Who remembers the regional cargo airport from a few decades back?). A mythologized public school system’s benefits have not crossed the Sunshine Bridge…

NOTE: According to Louisiana Department of Education Donaldsonville HS’ math and reading proficiency falls in the bottom 50% (Dutchtown HS and St. Amant HS both land in the top 5% with East Ascension HS in Gonzales in the top 30%).  Donaldsonville HS’ feeder schools are similarly underperforming.

high-paying jobs are in short supply, and residents are voting with their feet.

As population on the East Bank continues its upward trajectory, including two municipalities, the City of Donaldsonville’s population declined by 9% from 2010 (7,436) to 2020 (6,695) (US Census Bureau).  As noted by Bill Dawson last week, the median household income in Donaldsonville is $25,551. Compare that to $80,527 for all of Ascension Parish, with two Prairieville census blocks in the six-figures (one of them the highest in the State of Louisiana).

Decades of downward trending numbers, there is no easy fix.  Steps being contemplated include a broad range of parish initiatives, beginning with an Early Childhood Development Center envisioned for a yet-to-be built facility on acreage owned by Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.  Pursuant to an August 2021 Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, the parish and APSO “desire to facilitate the establishment” of the center to be located at 1200 St. Patrick St, which APSO purchased from the School Board.

Sheriff Webre revving up long awaited project (October 2021)

Ascension has agreed to reimburse Sheriff Bobby Webre $175,000 for remediation of structures in return for a 99-year lease at $1/year.  In September the Parish Council authorized reimbursement of $258,000 incurred to demolish the old West Ascension Elementary School.  Final plans, and corresponding costs, have yet to be revealed.

In December the Council authorized engagement of ResourceFull Consulting, a New Orleans firm recommended pursuant to an RFQ seeking “Strategic Planning Services.”

“An investment in the future of Donaldsonville,” in the words employed by Bill Dawson to describe another parish initiative.  The Council approved an agreement with developer Kevin Kelly who intends to purchase and renovate three of the Donaldsonville’s venerable (but vacant) buildings, then lease them to Ascension Parish.  The structures will house programs aimed at job training, good nutrition, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

A Chamber of Commerce Leadership Ascension team, D’Ville Shooting Stars has undertaken a $200,000 renovation (with $58,000 and counting from Ascension’s non-profit budget) of the Lemann Center for use as a gym.  A Tangipahoa Parish firm has been engaged to stabilize Donaldsonville’s historic courthouse…

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

a job on the books for nearly half-a-decade.

Not to minimize the importance of Early Childhood Development, good nutrition and recreational opportunities, retention of historical quaintness but…Without improved job prospects they mean little. What good is job training without jobs?

That’s where RiverPlex MegaPark of Louisiana comes in.

NOTE:  A 17,000 industrial park will require an awful lot of water which, ideally, would be supplied by Parish Utilities of Ascension.  Heretofore a money pit draining parish taxpayer dollars…

$25-30 million to replace PUA pipes; federal loan/grant could fund the worst of it

industrial demand for PUA water could put the nascent parish utility on a paying basis.  Dare to dream.

How realistic is it?

CAO Diez predicted “some really great things are about to happen on the West Bank from an industrial standpoint…billion dollar facilities.”  Coincidentally, Ascension Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) President/CEO Kate MacArthur also presented to the Finance Committee last week.

“The RiverPlex MegaPark of Louisiana is our long-term goal that we have been working towards.  The next step is looking at putting an Economic Development District to fund public infrastructure projects,” MacArthur explained, noting three potential projects for the site.

If it all has a familiar ring to it, March’s AEDC presentation was not the first to present big plans for the site, currently populated by a lot of sugar cane stalks and very few people.  Enormous investment is needed to construct the requisite rail, roads, water, etc.

Directly across the Mississippi River lie properties owned by BASF, Methanex, Honeywell, etc., those industrial entities whose tax dollars fund much that is good for East Bank Ascension.  The path to positive change on the West Bank runs through the MegaPark.

 

Comments

comments