PORT ALLEN — West Baton Rouge Parish’s industrial development thrived over the years thanks in large part to its close proximity to the Mississippi River.
But the kind of residential and commercial growth that exploded across the river to the east and south of Louisiana’s capital city has eluded West Baton Rouge. Parish leaders had to work hard to land a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Port Allen a few years ago and considered that a major coup.
Elected officials and business leaders in West Baton Rouge say they’d like to see more retail stores and other commercial development in the state’s smallest parish. But, they say that it’s unlikely to happen any time soon due to a variety of factors.
Although 80 percent of the land in the parish is undeveloped, much of that is designated wetlands, which is prohibitively expensive to develop. In addition, a small number of families own thousands of acres of agricultural land that they have little interest in selling off to become the backdrop for a big-name retailer.
Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot said those two factors make it highly unlikely any of the parish’s undeveloped land will be available any time soon to expand the parish’s industrial and commercial base.
“It’s going to take some time for us to catch up,” Berthelot said. “West Baton Rouge still has that hometown/rural feel, and a lot of people don’t want to see anyone else move in.”
But he adds, “And then there are those who want to see more big-box stores. If we were maybe 20 miles away from Baton Rouge, we’d have a lot of those things popping up here.”
Berthelot said it took some heavy convincing seven years ago to get Wal-Mart to open a new Supercenter along La. 1.
“We had to prove to them we had a lot of traffic here,” he said. “They’re doing quite well now and we were finally able to capture a lot of the dollars that were going across the river.”
The need for more commercial development is a conversation driven mainly by the increasing daily traffic woes along La. 1 as folks commute back and forth to work and/or into Baton Rouge for retail shopping, fine dining or evening entertainment.
Traffic will only get worse as residential growth in the parish continues, with new subdivisions popping up along La. 1 in the Addis and Brusly areas.
More households will give commercial developers greater incentive to build, but Scott Gaudin, chairman of the Board of Directors for the West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce, said the parish’s household count still falls short of where it needs to be to attract more retail businesses.
“West Baton Rouge is somewhere around 25,000 households. Typically, developers like that number to be higher than that — more like 75,000,” Gaudin said. “If there was a retailer or commercial prospect looking at West Baton Rouge, we’re open to discussion. We just haven’t had many inquiries to speak of.”
While low household count is one obstacle, another is the fact that nearly half of the parish’s undeveloped land is designated wetlands.
Cletus Langlois, an engineer with Patin Engineers and Surveyors, said developers are normally reluctant to buy wetland property because it can cost as much as $100,000 an acre in additional wetland mitigation costs.
“When you do something that destroys wetlands, you have to purchase mitigation credits from people who set aside property to preserve plant life and trees,” Langlois said.
Typically, for every acre of land, developers must obtain 2 1/2 credits — or acres — of wetland bank.
“If you are looking at 100 acres and a property owner says 75 acres of it is wetlands, it’s pretty much unusable,” he said. “You’re doubling your costs.”
Another 30 percent of undeveloped land in West Baton Rouge is owned by private landowners — one of them being the Laws family, which has claim to nearly 9,000 acres of farmland in the parish.
“Personally, we don’t want to sell land,” said Drew Maciasz, president and CEO of Harry L. Laws and Co. in Brusly. “We do have a lot of agricultural land. That’s our flagship. That’s our business.”
In addition to its holdings in West Baton Rouge, the family-owned firm also owns agricultural property in Iberville and St. Mary parishes.
Maciasz said the company isn’t opposed to development but has an obligation to the local farmers to whom it leases its property.
“Development is great and there’s a place for that, (but) in today’s world, we need people producing crops,” he said. “If we do ever transition our land to another use, it would be done in methods we would like and what would be beneficial to the community rather than just selling it off to the highest bidder.”
The opposite is happening in St. James Parish, where officials say farmers’ and landowners’ willingness to cash in on their wide-open spaces have made it possible for the area to attract several multimillion-dollar industrial developments this year.
“Our farmers are making a living and doing well. But if the price is right, they’ll sell tomorrow,” said Steve Nosacka, the mayor of Gramercy and economic consultant for St. James Parish. “However, our situation is a little different since we do have farmers that own sizable tracts of land, but no one family or group owns huge chunks of acreage.”
In the meantime, Berthelot said, the parish is prepared to work with the smaller parcels of undeveloped land that are open for development.
He said the parish plans to use more than $7 million in surplus funds to install infrastructure and access roads on a small tract of land along La. 415, near Interstate 10, in Port Allen.
“We want to get it to a point where a developer can come in and see what they might be able to do with it,” Berthelot said.
And Gaudin says the Chamber is hoping a proposed mixed-use development that combines residential and commercial into walkable communities similar to River Ranch in Lafayette can finally come to fruition after being in limbo for several years.
“There’s room for everyone. I don’t think anyone wants to live in an area where it’s all just one thing,” Gaudin said.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.