GONZALES - Candidates for mayor in Gonzales and Donaldsonville found more to agree on than disagree Wednesday at a forum hosted by the Ascension hospitality industry.
The four candidates answered questions they were provided beforehand, and the format seemed to forestall any fireworks between incumbent Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux and his opponent, city Councilman Terance Irvin, or incumbent Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan and his challenger, Shannon Comery.
But the host group, Ascension Hospitality Management Association, asked for answers to some of the top questions for local residents: how to improve traffic and how to continue economic growth when the petrochemical boom cools.
"I think the best thing to do for (traffic) congestion would be another bridge in Iberville Parish," Sullivan said.
He said he was not in favor of a proposed loop that would run around Ascension and St. James parishes and tie into Livingston Parish.
The loop, he said, would bypass Donaldsonville, he said.
"We need to make sure that whatever we do, it's the best thing for everyone in Ascension Parish," Sullivan said.
Comery said public transportation is vital for Donaldsonville.
He notes that a businessman has been offering a taxi service with a fleet of vans in Donaldsonville for about a year and can hardly keep up with demand.
Comery, who's in his 30s, said that when he was in college, there was a bus service in Donaldsonville that he took to get to class at Southern University.
There's no such bus service anymore, he said.
"Transportation is important for Donaldsonville, because of the lack of opportunity in our city," Comery said.
Residents have to get to the east side of the parish for work, he said.
Traffic congestion on La. 30 in Gonzales, a state highway that links plant workers to the interstate and shoppers to the Tanger Outlet shopping center, is a growing concern in Gonzales, Arceneaux said.
"We are continuing to work on this" with the state Department of Transportation and Development, Arceneaux said, adding, "Our state delegation is in tune with us."
Irvin said, if he's elected, he plans to sit on the Capital Region Planning Commission that serves 11 parishes and works on such regional issues as transportation.
It's key, Irvin said, for the city to have the general fund balances to match any state grants on such projects. The statement prompted Arceneaux to say, after Irvin spoke, that the city of Gonzales has approximately a half-million dollars available, "waiting for a match."
One of the questions from the 60-member strong hospitality association that includes hotels that have sprung up in Gonzales and in the Sunshine Bridge area near Donaldsonville, serving a clientele made up largely of industry workers here for a specific project, was how to keep visitors coming in future years.
"I want to revitalize our (city) marketing team to partner with the recreation commission and the hospitality industry" to explore draws for tourists, Irvin said.
He said he'd like to see Gonzales work on expanding its well-known Jambalaya Festival, for example, held every year on Memorial Day weekend.
Working to bring new attractions and events to Gonzales is an "opportunity to position ourselves for future success," Irvin said.
"The petrochemical industry right now is our bread and butter, but what do we do if that declines?" Arceneaux said.
Traveling baseball clubs and tournaments are something Gonzales has hosted in the past and hopes to attract in the future that have drawn families who stay in hotels, eat in local restaurants and shop in local stores, he said.
The city is also looking at the possibility of building a convention center in the place of the Gonzales Civic Center that was badly damaged in the August floods, Arceneaux said.
"One of the things we want to do is make sure we market the city of Donaldsonville," Sullivan said.
"People say it's a great place to visit. We want to make sure it's a great place to live," he said.
Comery said he'd like to build Donaldsonville, too, with the help of successful residents who have moved away.
He'd like to launch a "making a difference from a distance campaign," to get the support of those former residents in supporting new recreational opportunities in the city, he said.
None of the candidates are fans of a current ruling in Ascension Parish, regarding annexation of parish property into the cities, that keeps 75 percent of sales taxes generated through the annexation for the parish, with 25 percent going to the city.
Both Arceneaux and Sullivan said they'd like to challenge the ruling in court.
"What happens is, the city is burdened with infrastructure (after the annexation) and what do we get? Twenty-five percent," Arceneaux said.
"I believe deep in my heart it's illegal," Sullivan said of the ruling.
Comery also said that while he's not familiar with public feeling about the 75/25 sales tax ruling, it appeared that it could be illegal.
"The important thing is who carries the burden" of infrastructure costs, Irvin said.