Ascension Parish officials unveil $25 million recreation plan

Ascension Parish officials outlined an expansive vision Thursday for recreation in one of Louisiana’s fastest growing and youngest parishes.

The approximately $25 million plan would pay for upgrades to 16 existing parks across the parish, a large new recreation complex at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, two new dog parks, and new trails and boating access points on Bayou Manchac.

Councilman Travis Turner, chairman of the council’s Recreation Committee, said the plan would bring recreational opportunities close to home.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Why can’t we have that type of park system, or recreation system, in our own parish so our parents won’t have drive 30, 40 minutes away,” Turner asked, “fighting traffic trying to get to Baton Rouge or wherever else they’re trying to go during the week or on the weekend? Why can’t we have something close to home?’ ”

The recreation plan calls for a citizen committee and later public meetings to help steer funding discussions and any changes to the recreation projects so the plan is refined by April.

Turner, who presented the plan Thursday to the committee and about 30 residents and officials, pointed to 2012 census estimates that he said showed 28.1 percent of Ascension’s population is younger than 18. The Louisiana average is 24.3 percent, while East Baton Rouge’s percentage is 23 percent, Turner’s figures say.

The percentage of Ascension households with children younger than 18 is 38 percent. The state average is 30 percent.

“We have a young parish, and when you have a young parish, you need things for those youth to do,” Turner said.

He pointed to studies showing dollars invested in recreation cut drug activity and juvenile arrests.

Trey Arnold, 40, Prairieville, a coach and president of the Ascension Baseball Committee, said the parish boys league had 112 teams this year with just 12 baseball fields. He said the fields have poor lighting that make it hard to see the ball, a danger for players.

“It’s hard for these kids to play ball if they don’t have the money behind them to support them,” Arnold said.

The plan also calls for upgrading the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in the Donaldsonville area, a former private, nonprofit park the parish bought in 2011.

Mark Peters, 48, director of Hope Youth Development who is involved with west bank recreation, said tennis courts have not been upgraded in at least 10 years. He said he was also excited to see the addition of playgrounds to parish parks — which develops young children physically — and new walking trails.

“It helps everyone in the whole parish,” Peters said.

The new recreation plan calls for a dedicated funding source for recreation but leaves open what it would be and when a tax measure would reach the ballot.

The parish sets aside 10 percent of the 1-cent rural sales tax, which generates about $2.1 million per year. Turner said that is not enough to do the kind of capital upgrades proposed.

Councilman Chris Loar has floated the possibility of rededicating East Ascension drainage property taxes or putting a new 3-mill recreation tax on the ballot, but the rededication concept has run into opposition.

Councilman Oliver Joseph said that sooner or later parish residents are going to have to be grown-ups and vote to fund something.

“This council, this committee is not gonna to make a decision for you. You, people of Ascension Parish, are going to have to make that decision, but I’m hoping that you vote yes for it,” said Joseph, a Recreation Committee member.