GONZALES —James “Elvis” Boswell, of Memphis, Tennessee, is in Gonzales so often for his work — and for such long stays — that the La Quinta Inn where he hangs his hat puts him in the same suite every time.
“I think they should take the number off it and call it the Elvis suite,” jokes Boswell, who has performed as an Elvis impersonator in the past but now does it just for fun.
Boswell has been working in Gonzales for 11 months, at area industrial sites for his employer B & P Enterprises of Walls, Mississippi, which provides construction and salvage services and environmental work.
“It’s almost like family, like a second family,” Boswell said of the staff at the La Quinta.
The La Quinta Inn & Suites is one of four hotels that have sprung up in the past few years west of I-10, on Cabela’s Parkway in Gonzales. Two more hotels are under construction there.
The parkway, a winding road off La. 30, across from the Tanger Outlet Center, that leads to the Cabela’s store, has become the epicenter of a hotel boom in Gonzales prompted by billion-dollar industrial projects and expansions along the Mississippi River — and the construction workers those projects are bringing.
If one counts all the hotels already open or coming to the Tanger/Cabela’s vicinity, travelers will soon be able to choose from eight properties, most in such close proximity that guests could be excused for occasionally pulling up into the wrong hotel parking lot.
While some of the hotel guests are leisure travelers, the bread-and-butter business for the hotels in the area is the workers coming for plant jobs that last for weeks or months.
“Because of the expansions and turnarounds, most of our business is long-stay guests,” said Sabrina Ray, sales administrator of the Marriott’s TownePlace Suites, built near Cabela’s in 2011.
All the hotels in the area, she said, “have negotiated (room) rates with the petrochemical and industrial companies.”
“Most stay three months,” Ray said of the workers who check in to the hotel. But some, she said, have stayed three years.
And occupancy rates are high.
“We sell out here,” said Meri Watson, general manager with the Hampton Inn, which is off Cabela’s Parkway.
Prospects for such hotel businesses continue to look good for the coming years.
Stephen Moret, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development, has said that the state is looking at more than $60 billion in new industrial projects, along with tens of thousands of new construction jobs in the next few years.
In Ascension and St. James parishes, projects include more than $350 million in expansions at BASF and a $1.1 billion construction project at Methanex, both in Geismar in Ascension Parish; a $2.1 billion expansion at CF Industries in Donaldsonville, in Ascension Parish; and a $1.85 billion Yuhuang Chemical methanol complex in St. James Parish.
Hotel managers are generally bullish about the future, although there’s no guarantee the petrochemical industry will continue in the long term to generate the kind of business that’s filling hotel rooms now.
“We have no anticipation of a slowdown,” said David Scarnato, general manager of a second Marriott property, SpringHill Suites, due to open in March on Cabela’s Parkway.
And, he said, hotels in Gonzales, conveniently located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, can diversify to other markets, such as tourists visiting plantations, sports fans and other kinds of business travelers.
“I can’t even imagine that,” Ray, of TownePlace Suites, said of a possible slowdown in industry-generated hotel business. “What these plants are manufacturing are commodities that will be here forever.”
There is good reason for their optimism, according to retired chemical engineer and consultant, R. W. Peterson, whose Baton Rouge business, ChemPlants, publishes reports for petrochemical service industries.
Peterson said he believes that “in terms of hotels in Gonzales, they’re going to be filled with construction workers because we have the lowest cost of feedstock, oil and natural gas than anywhere else in the world and will continue to have it.”
Still, JW Smith, general manager of the La Quinta that opened in 2013 with 60 pet-friendly rooms, said the petrochemical boom can’t be expected to last forever.
“People say it’s going to dry up one day” and that one day the hotel business “will reach its saturation point” in Gonzales,” Smith said. The difference for individual hotels will be the “personal relationships and customer service” they’ve built, he said.
The Cabela’s store opened in 2007 on 49 acres of a specially created economic development district of about 230 acres off La. 30.
“When we’re choosing a location for a new store, we definitely want a location that’s highly visible and will draw traffic,” said Nathan Borowski, communications specialist with Cabela’s corporate headquarters in Sidney, Nebraska.
The hotels and a number of restaurants that have opened and are coming to the area around Cabela’s fit the bill nicely for drawing traffic to the store.
The Gonzales Cabela’s store is “actually a legacy store,” said Victoria Waite, the store’s marketing director, meaning it’s “more of a destination store.”
Inside, shoppers, some of whom may stop by from their hotels just down the street, can enjoy an aquarium, a safari museum, a “back country” museum and a fudge shop, Waite said.
Cabela’s opened about eight years ago, with the recent boom in hotel construction beginning about four years ago as area petrochemical projects started revving up.
The Tower Investment Group of Baton Rouge is building a pet-friendly Candlewood Suites near Cabela’s that is expected to be open in October. It will feature 83 extended-stay rooms, complete with kitchenettes. The company previously opened a nearby property, the Hampton Inn on La. 30, in the front of the Cabela’s site.
“We built the Hampton in 2008. We were shocked when we saw how many hotels were being built” in the past five years, said Ash Patel, of Tower Investment Group.
“It energized us. We knew if we didn’t do it, somebody else would. We already had the property,” Patel said.
Outside the Cabela’s area, another new hotel, a Suburban Lodge, is being built off La. 30 east of the interstate. Several older hotel properties can be found along either side of that portion of La. 30, from the 37-room America’s Best Suites to the 121-room Clarion Inn & Conference Center.
One factor in the growing hotel business in the Gonzales area, said Mike Eades, president of the Ascension Economic Development Corp., is that “about two or three years ago, a light bulb came on for a lot of these people who had been staying in Baton Rouge” that it would be more convenient to be closer to their work further downriver.
“There’s certainly a demand” for the hotel rooms, Eades said.
Tracy Brown, director of the Ascension Parish Tourist Commission, said there has been something of a hotel building boom, with two to three new hotels popping up each year for the last few years.
Soon there will be more than 1,300 hotel rooms in Ascension Parish, Brown said, with most of them in Gonzales.
The growth in the hospitality industry in the parish is reflected in the increased occupancy tax collections, from about $12,800 in October/November 2004 to approximately $23,500 for the same time period in 2009 to roughly $46,000 for October/November 2014.
The occupancy tax is one of the funding sources of the tourist commission.
Watson, of the Hampton Inn, has an optimistic take on her hotel’s outlook for the future.
Of the petrochemical industry, she said: “I don’t really think it’s going anywhere.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Jan. 19, 2015, to correct the title Sabrina Ray holds with TownePlace Suites, Marriott in Gonzales. She is sales administrator, not general manager.