GONZALES — The inside of the 4-H building at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center is a lot like a warehouse in the summer — cavernous, warm and restricted in its use.
That’s about to change.
After six years of trying, Ascension Parish officials have received approval for a federally funded project to transform the 75,000-square-foot building into a climate-controlled, hurricane-hardened facility. They say the transformation will give the parish a leg up in attracting events and will allow the facility to serve as a safe refuge for people in storms.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness have approved nearly $8.7 million in projects at Lamar-Dixon, which includes about $5.6 million on the 4-H building, parish officials said.
“With these upgrades, the facility will be a state-of-the-art multipurpose center to provide for new economic development opportunities and will be hardened to serve as one of the buildings for the statewide hurricane staging area at Lamar-Dixon center,” Parish President Tommy Martinez told the Parish Council on Thursday night in Gonzales.
The metal 4-H building has served as a home to annual livestock shows, where goats, rabbits, hogs, sheep and chickens are shown. It’s also where BP stored oil containment boom for months after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the building lacks air conditioning and heat and has window openings that are just covered with metal mesh screens, leaving them open to outside air.
Martinez and current and past administrators at Lamar-Dixon have seen the huge building as a jewel in the rough, something that could be key to attracting midsized conventions to the 247-acre parish-owned complex near Gonzales if the building was air-conditioned and had other improvements.
Martinez has eyed achieving that dream through use of federal hurricane recovery dollars. He said the parish received a letter from FEMA and GOHSEP on Monday, granting final approval after years of work.
Once enclosed, the 4-H building will boost the Lamar-Dixon center’s climate-controlled square footage to over 100,000 and allow the parish to go after events it could not attract in the past, Martinez said.
The grant’s upgrades include adding impact-resistant windows and new sprinkler and fire alarm systems, demolishing internal structures and leveling the building’s floor, adding restrooms and building a hurricane-rated safe room, a parish summary says.
Martinez said the parish hopes to put the project out to bid soon, with a tentative construction state date of March 17.
The remainder of the nearly $8.7 million in funding for improvements at the Lamar-Dixon center, about $3.1 million, will go toward a second phase to storm-harden other buildings, including three arenas — the commissary and the Trade Mart and the gymnasium buildings.
The grant will retrofit the 4-H building and the six other buildings so they can withstand winds of up to 125 mph and build a stand-alone safe room for emergency responders that can withstand winds up to 160 mph, GOHSEP officials said Friday.
Since the parish began leasing the center in 2005 — the parish didn’t finalize an agreement to buy it until 2009 — Lamar-Dixon has served as a state response hub for various hurricanes, including Katrina, Gustav and Isaac.
“The structures to be mitigated serve as a regional staging/holding area for first responders throughout Louisiana,” GOHSEP officials said in a statement Friday.
“The facilities are also a regional base for emergency and recovery operations, and serve as a staging area after major storm events and other emergencies.”
About $4.2 million of the $8.7 million designated for center improvements is from FEMA and dates back to allocations made after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, GOHSEP spokesman Mike Steele said. The remainder of the $8.7 million comes from hurricane recovery money awarded to the parish in 2009, after Hurricane Gustav.
According to a parish summary of the project, nearly $1.1 million of the FEMA money is being put toward the 4-H building while the other $3.1 million will go toward hardening other Lamar-Dixon buildings.
Martinez told the council Thursday he was happy to see the end was near in the lengthy process of securing funding and approval to undertake the improvements.
“Just proud to say after six years of battling, we finally got to where we need to be,” Martinez said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter at @NewsieDave.