BUNKIE — Disappointed by business suitors who failed to deliver on promises of jobs and prosperity, Bunkie continues trying to reel in corporate mates as it brushes off the hurt of broken engagements.
“We’re now better prepared to promote our industrial park,” said Mayor Mike Robertson, who would rather steer conversations away from the topic of jobs that didn’t come to Bunkie and focus instead on what the town of just over 4,000 has to offer.
Over the past 12 years, residents in this southwest Avoyelles Parish town have gotten their hopes up over and over again on news that outside industry or Louisiana government would be bringing in hundreds of jobs locals would be qualified to do. And each announcement that promised better times was followed by news that something didn’t quite work out, that the jobs would not materialize for various reasons.
Among the disappointments:
A sugar syrup mill project in the mid-2000s, pushed by Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, suffered from bad economics and was scuttled before the first cubic yard of dirt was dug — but not before raising excitement over the prospect of steady jobs at decent pay.
Nashville, Tennessee-based Miller Wood Products in 2007 announced it would build a cabinet factory and employ up to 500 workers within a few years, but after the euphoria of the announcement the company and its plans disappeared.
In 2011, Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice selected the city as the site for the Acadiana Center for Youths, the department’s newest facility for teenagers in trouble with the law. Although the $23 million facility is almost completed, Louisiana is short of the money it’ll take to operate the center and staff it with 124 workers. Though state and local officials say the money will be found to operate the center, it remains unfunded.
Last summer Bunkie received its biggest letdown: Gulf Coast Spinning was abandoning construction of a textile plant in the Bunkie Industrial Park, killing the 300 jobs that residents had been led to believe were coming.
There was other bad news during those years: Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie closed stores in Bunkie, and Roy O. Martin Lumber Company shuttered a plant in nearby LeMoyen. The closures led to scores of people being thrown out of work.
“We’ve had some of the worst luck ever,” said Tiffany Tuminello, president of the Bunkie Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Robertson and Tuminello continue to show the Louisiana Economic Development-certified 148-acre industrial park to U.S. and international businesses. They said they’ve learned from experience and are better prepared for that day when the right business mate or mates walk into town.
But the hurt has not totally subsided from the failure of Gulf Coast Spinning’s plans. “I truly believed it would come to fruition,” Robertson said.
Bunkie will eventually lock in on a major job creator, said Rick Ranson, a vice president at the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance.
“Bunkie’s got a great industrial site. Something’s going to go there. … It’s just a matter of time, and I don’t say that about a lot of sites,” Ranson said.
Gulf Coast Spinning
The plan for the textile plant in Bunkie was greeted with official pomp and personal gratitude when it was announced in December 2013. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal was at the head of the meet-and-greet line that included Gulf Coast Spinning’s top executives, regional economic development officials and an assembly of prominent town folks.
The local newspaper, The Bunkie Record, noted that at one time GCS had been viewed as an “economic savior” for the community.
“If you have 300 jobs, making $10 to $12 an hour, it means a lot,” Robertson said earlier this month. To qualify for training and a job at GCS, residents were told they needed only to be drug-free, possess a high school diploma or GED, and no felony convictions.
The project and GCS had been vetted by experts, including Louisiana Economic Development, the state’s business development arm. The utility company Cleco Corp., which has a seasoned economic development team, wrote in a memo to a financial institution that Cleco backed the manufacturing plant.
“We believe the manufacturing sector is experiencing a ‘renaissance’ in the United States and are thrilled that Louisiana is able to participate in the reemergence of an industry that could produce substantial economic benefits for years to come,” Cleco said in a note to Red River Bank.
Cleco said full employment at GCS would raise the “employment population” in Avoyelles Parish by at least 1 percent and maybe up to 2 percent.
Somewhere along the way however things fell apart. In late June 2015, the mayor announced that GCS would halt construction of the plant at Bunkie’s industrial park. GCS’s parent company, Zagis USA, said it would instead build a facility in Shreveport. In an interview last week, Robertson said GCS’s Shreveport plans, too, fell through.
Reminders of GCS’s failed bid in Bunkie remain, including tons of steel lying on the ground at Bunkie Industrial Park where the plant was to be built. Gulf States Spinning’s name also remained engraved in the industrial park’s signage.
“We had the name put on that sign,” Robertson said. “Everyone was that sure. I’m going to have it removed.”
Lawsuits also are a legacy. GCS and its parent company — Zagis, which operates a spinning facility in Lacassine — have sued Cleco claiming the utility failed to come through with promised financing for a small portion of the capital expense. And companies have filed liens for the work that was done but never paid for at the industrial park. Meanwhile, tons of steel that was to be used in construction lies in weeds at the industrial park.
Robertson said the fault lies with GCS, which couldn’t get financing. He said Cleco invested heavily in setting up infrastructure for GCS’s electricity needs.
Calls during the last week to parent company Zagis’ plant in Lacassine seeking comment were not returned.
Though loans were promised to GSC and parent company Zagis for the Lacassine and Bunkie plants, it’s unclear if the state spent any money on the Bunkie facility.
State Sen. Eric LaFleur, whose district includes Bunkie, said the GCS saga followed a Louisiana state government trend of officials announcing grand projects after pledging money to lure industry.
“Sometimes we don’t do the business cost-benefit analysis,” LaFleur said. “We do the political cost-benefit analysis. If it helps you look good politically, then you do it regardless of the cost.”
LaFleur also cited the state’s recent experience with Bell Helicopter, which was to assemble its new 505 Jet Ranger X in a $26.3 million hangar that Louisiana paid for.
Citing a soft commercial market, Bell in May said the 505 Jet Ranger X would instead be assembled at a facility in Canada, and would relegate the Lafayette facility to pre-assembly work for other models.
It’s doubtful Bell will ever deliver on its promised 115 jobs in Lafayette, though there are some employees who are working at the hangar that’s located on the grounds of Lafayette Regional Airport.
“We’re going to get a benefit from (the Bell facility), so it’ not a complete loss,” LaFleur said. “That’s just an example of how it can go south real quick, after you make the investment.”
Acadiana Center for Youth
Meanwhile, hiring at a another promised jobs-creator in Bunkie — the Office of Juvenile Justice-run Acadiana Center for Youth, construction that cost the state $23 million — is on hold while cash-strapped Louisiana looks for money to fund ACY’s yearly operations.
Workers are now completing the facility, and Mayor Robertson and LaFleur believe money for staffing will come through. LaFleur said construction is expected to be completed in September, with training following.
But the money is not yet in the budget. Legislators are currently in their third session this year, including two special sessions dedicated solely to raising more money and cutting more expenses in the 2016-17 fiscal year that starts July 1.
The Bunkie ACY facility sits on 20 acres off U.S. 71 at Bordelon Road. Planned since 2011, during better economic times for Louisiana, the facility is built to house 72 troubled teens from central and south Louisiana, and overseen by a staff totaling 124.
Tuminello, with the Bunkie Chamber of Commerce, said 15 to 20 employees were hired earlier this year, only to be laid off when funding became doubtful.