PONCHATOULA — The commission overseeing operations of Port Manchac is once again considering a deal with a developer seeking to convert the industrial complex into a resort.

The South Tangipahoa Port Commission voted Tuesday to consult with its attorney about a new agreement proposed by backers of The Village at Manchac.

Developers have pitched a mixed-use development with hotels, shopping, homes and ice cream stands on the 40-acre port and an adjacent 100 acres of undeveloped land. Environmentalists and some residents of Ponchatoula oppose the project, saying it would overwhelm existing infrastructure and put people and wetlands at risk.

Port Commissioner Dr. James Nelson originally made a motion to accept the agreement as it was written by the developers. But he withdrew his motion after Port Commissioner Ernie Drake and the port’s attorney raised concerns about what they described as the contract's vagueness.

“Now we’re not just limited to what the original project is, what they’ve been peddling for the last two years. Now we’re open to any other development on the property,” Drake said of the proposed contract.

A deal with the resort developers would signal a reverse in course from recent board actions to conduct a “highest and best use” study evaluating a broad array of possible uses for the port.

Commissioner Bill Joubert proposed that study in January, after the state attorney general issued an opinion saying the board had broad authority to change the basic functions of the port.

Tuesday's debate over the contract came after the port’s consultant, Gary LaGrange, announced some good news to the board. LaGrange said he's found a tenant from southwestern Louisiana interested in using the facility to offload nonhazardous, dry bulk goods from barges — the type of project the port has been attempting to lure for months.

The proposed contract with the Village at Manchac gives developers 18 months to conduct feasibility studies on the port. After that, the developers would then be entitled to a 99-year lease at fair market rent, subject to adjustment annually based on cost-of-living increases.

The new deal says the developers would have to negotiate the port out of its current leases and government grants, taking responsibility for any money owed.

Nelson said the revised Village at Manchac contract addressed a list of conditions the board set forth at a meeting in February. The port is in an awkward position now that the developers have come back with a contract that largely meets those conditions, he said.

“We should not let this opportunity for the people of Tangipahoa Parish escape us,” said Nelson, who was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards to the board in December on the recommendation of the Hammond Chamber of Commerce. Nelson has been an outspoken proponent of the project.

But Drake pointed out that the agreement as written allows the developers to convert the port into a “commercial and/or other development,” with the only prohibited uses being “any qualified truck stop facility, truck stop casino or riverboat gambling business or enterprise.”

Port Attorney Andre Coudrain advised the board not to sign the contract as written.

“I think there are a couple of points I’d be concerned about, to lock yourselves into granting an exclusive option to someone else for 99 years for a vaguely defined project,” Coudrain said.

Nelson said he wished the conversation could have been had among the board prior to the meeting instead of in a public meeting. Nelson said earlier that he emailed the board about his planned motion in advance of the meeting, and only one commissioner responded.

Coudrain said he would provide feedback to the board on the proposal within a week.


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.