Ascension officials, landowners take first steps to open river-front land for industrial development _lowres

Ascension Rezone map

Louisiana Economic Development, Ascension Parish officials and landowners have been laying the groundwork to open a large swath of Mississippi River-front property north of Donaldsonville for a new industrial zone on the parish’s west bank.

J. Michael Eades, president and CEO of the Ascension Economic Development Corp., said the 15,000 to 17,000 acres of largely agricultural land is one of the largest sections of undeveloped property with navigable deepwater access remaining in Louisiana.

Stephen Moret, state economic development secretary, said a few months ago AEDC began working with consultant CSRS and others to do a site search, and now a conceptual master plan is underway.

“While there’s a great deal of progress we need to make, we’ve reached a critical mass of interest from landowners in developing a significant industrial complex in this area, tentatively to be called the Westbank Industrial Park,” Moret said Friday.

The expanse northeast of La. 1 lies between the river hamlets of Smoke Bend and Modeste, which are upriver of Donaldsonville.

The same area was once part of the proposed site for the scuttled Louisiana Transportation Center. Consultant URS Corp. proposed the 25,000-acre cargo airport and a related industrial complex be located in the area for a now defunct airport authority in 2002. The airport, which also would have crossed into Assumption and Iberville parishes, had been a concept imagined by state officials since the early 1990s, before the site was proposed.

Eades said two key factors are driving the renewed interest in the west bank site. Ascension lacks space for large industrial sites on the east bank, home to the parish’s chemical corridor in the Burnside, Gonzales and Geismar areas that is pushing 60 years old.

At the same time, low natural gas prices and large gas supplies from hydraulic fracturing continue to stoke interest in locating in the river corridor with its ready rail lines, gas pipelines and work force.

“If we want to continue to attract new heavy industrial facilities, we need some new places to put them,” Eades said.

He did say that no prospects are waiting on the site, and the planning effort is not a sign the cargo airport is making a return. Both Eades and Moret also warned that the zone is not without issues.

The Union Pacific Railroad, which runs parallel to La. 1, is five miles from deep water dock access. Also, the huge tracts of largely sugar cane fields being eyed are owned by multiple landowners, and it’s not clear every landowner is ready to move forward, according to one landowner.

But Moret said the parties involved see the need for a master plan so the park can serve multiple companies and multiple industrial projects well.

“With consensus among the partners and a well-conceived plan, we do indeed believe there’s strong potential for attracting major new business investment and job creation to this area,” Moret said.

At the same time, Moret said, it is not yet clear the area will develop as one industrial park.

“It may be that the property gets developed more as a series of large, individual industrial sites, which would also be very useful,” he added.

The big picture concept came to light Wednesday when the owner of one of the tracts, Souvenir Inc., sought to rezone 720 acres near La. 1, Smoke Bend and the Evan Hall sugar mill from residential and light industrial to high industry.

Souvenir is a landholding corporation owned primarily by the Lemann family, one of Donaldsonville’s longtime agricultural families with thousands of acres in farming. Charles Thibaut, who is from another prominent landholding family in Donaldsonville, is also an officer in the company, state business records say.

Eades told the parish Zoning Commission Wednesday the rezoning was “very, very important for the future of the west bank.”

Parish Planning and Development Director Ricky Compton said the site was part of a larger long-term planning effort and more rezoning proposals could be coming.

“We’ve been working with AEDC. We’ve been working with the property owners (of Souvenir) and we’ve been working with several other owners on the west bank, and you’ll be seeing those applications come through, hopefully, in the next 60 to 90 days, maybe even sooner,” Compton said.

He said the rezoning “is in line with the direction of how the administration desires that the west bank continue to move forward and progress itself and make itself an economically viable part of this parish.”

In contrast to some of the other parcels that are farther from La. 1 and the Union Pacific line, Eades said the Souvenir site has a Union Pacific rail spur on it in addition to access to La. 1 and the river.

Robert “Bubba” Lemann Jr., president of Souvenir, said parish officials had a public meeting with landowners about two months ago at Cafe LaFourche in Donaldsonville to introduce the concept for the 17,000 acres.

He said a lot of the landowners were against the idea but the officers in Souvenir decided to move forward and at least seek a zoning change. Lemann said the rezoning, which got backing from the commission Wednesday but still needs Parish Council approval, only means that Souvenir is prepared, not that a project is imminent nor that his family is getting out of farming.

“If you want to know the truth, I’m not really crazy about selling it, but I have a responsibility to the stockholders of my company that, if some big great suitor comes along, to be prepared, and that’s all,” Lemann said after the zoning recommendation.

“It’s just a step in the process to be ready. I’m farming today. I plan to be farming to the day I die.”

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter at @NewsieDave.