050619 Gonzales Pace road plan

In the past three months, the city of Gonzales has found sites for a new performing arts center and a community basketball gym and announced a new road for the most congested part of the city.

Sounds like a plan. 

And the plan has a name: the 2018-2025 Strategic Economic Development Plan, which the city created last summer with the help of a special state program.

The first fruits of the planning effort — the center, the gym, the road — are becoming evident now.

"I want to see bricks and mortar," Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux said in a recent interview. "When we can get things lined up, we're going to get things done."

The plan that will guide the city's economic development over the next several years is the outgrowth of monthslong participation in the Development Ready Communities program run by Louisiana Economic Development.

The program involves a local committee, with the assistance from an LED staff member, gathering input from the public as a city takes stock of its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities and comes up with a doable list of actions it can take to make it more competitive, primed for growth.

"It's obviously tailored to each community," said Kate MacArthur, chief administrative officer of the Ascension Economic Develop Corp., who was part of the Development Ready process for Gonzales. 

The objective, she said, is figuring out how to make a community more marketable to new development. 

Cities apply to participate in the Development Ready program, which is offered at no cost. No state funding is involved.

Stacey Neal, the state economic development staff member who worked with Gonzales last year, said communities that care enough to sign up for the program tend to follow through on their to-do lists.

"They're really looking for a tool to make the things happen that their community wants," Neal said.

Gonzales is now one of 40 Development Ready communities in the state, with two more in the process of being certified, Neal said.

Parishes are getting involved in the program for the first time, she said with two now in the certification process — West Feliciana and Cameron. 

The strategic economic plan for Gonzales through the year 2025 lists 16 projects, some the city previously had underway, such as its effort to become a stop on the proposed commuter rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The plan also envisions providing public transit through a subsidized ride-share program, advocating for a magnet school in the city and launching a "live local" campaign.

The strategic plan can be found on the city's website, gonzalesla.com, at the bottom of the home page under "Plans and Policies."

The most visible projects — the performing arts center, basketball gym and new road — have all seen action in recent months:

  • Performing Arts and Conference Events Center: The city was optimistic when it listed a new conference center in its economic development plan adopted in July 2018; at the time, it was still looking down the road at a measure on the December ballot for a hotel-motel tax that would fund the building and operation of the center.

Voters approved the tax and in March, the city selected the mixed-use development, Heritage Crossing, coming to the corner of La. 30 and Burnside Avenue/La. 44, as the site for the new center.

A long-term goal for the center over the next several years, once it's up and running, is to produce 24 events each year that will bring more than 20,000 additional visitors to Gonzales.

  • Community basketball gym: Adding a new basketball gym to city recreational facilities is a quality of life goal for Gonzales in its economic development plan.

Later this month, the city is expecting to close on the $160,000 purchase of four acres on South Darla Avenue for the site of the community basketball gym. 

The city's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, set to be voted on later this month, is expected to include money for clearing the ground, as well as design and engineering work.

The city is researching the possibility of obtaining a federal grant to help with the $2 million to $3 million cost of building the gym, Chief Administrative Officer Scot Byrd has said. The hope is to build the gym in fiscal year 2020-21.

  • Connector road: Named as an infrastructure goal for the hospital district area around Our Lady of the Lake Ascension off La. 30, a connector road is being planned in the city through the Heritage Crossing development.

The cost of building the road, to be named St. Francis Parkway, will be shared between the city and the developer and will connect Darla Avenue and Burnside Avenue/La. 44, helping to move traffic at one of the most heavily traveled areas of the city.

Funds for the design of the new road are included in the proposed budget for the new fiscal year.

Communities that complete the Development Ready process continue to meet regularly to make new plans for the future, said LED's Neal, who is director of the Community Competitiveness Initiative for Louisiana Economic Development. 

"Our goal is to the teach the community how to do the plan and continue to do the plan continuously, as items roll off" and projects are completed, she said. 

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.