Residents of river parish question whether benefits of growth outweigh pitfalls of change
“A lot of people work on the plants and on the river. If it wasn’t for the river, there’d be no work.” John Haydel, of Convent
CONVENT — Ride along River Road through the parish seat of Convent, in St. James Parish, and Hymel’s Seafood Restaurant is the place to stop for lunch.
The family-owned restaurant has been a local institution, mostly unchanged, for more than 60 years.
But the landscape around Hymel’s has transformed from a rural patch to an industrial powerhouse.
In the distance behind the restaurant stand the two huge, dome-topped storage tanks of Nucor Steel Louisiana, which started up in December, the newest plant to make a home in the area.
Industry has been finding the small, rural parish of St. James — divided by the Mississippi River and with undeveloped land still available — highly attractive for decades now.
But residents are beginning to look at the industrial growth with new eyes, wondering if they’re giving up more than they’re gaining.
“A lot of people work on the plants and on the river. If it wasn’t for the river, there’d be no work,” said John Haydel, a Convent resident who stopped at Hymel’s for breakfast one recent morning.
“If it wasn’t for the river, they’d leave us alone,” said Jaynes Gandy, Haydel’s friend and also a Convent resident, offering another view of the parish’s industrial revolution.
The plants have come in, but that has not been followed by a population bump. Residential neighborhoods, retail sales and employment levels have remained, curiously, the same.
“We have not grown, population-wise, in 100 years. Our younger people are leaving the parish,” said Blaise Gravois, assistant director of operations for the parish.
Part of the reason, some say, is the unregulated growth of industry in a parish without zoning.
“Most of St. James Parish has been family-owned land,” Gravois said. “We inherit our parents’ property and build.”
Many people in the parish live in the same house or on the same property where they grew up.
These days, though, young people aren’t keen on investing $250,000 in a home on family property when they don’t know if a huge steel and concrete plant will be springing up next door, he said.
The parish is getting closer to having a land-use plan, for the first time, that would address some of those issues.
St. James Parish isn’t against industry, said Gravois, who chaired the planning committee that met for more than a year to develop the land-use plan now close to being reality. But residents, he said, want the parish to grow “the way we want it to grow.”
In another proactive effort, the St. James Parish Council announced this month it’s considering hiring an environmental consultant to help it weigh the impact of future industrial development.
Bliss M. Higgins, of ENVIRON International Corp.’s Baton Rouge office, told the Parish Council that her role, if hired, would be to review industry applications for projects in the parish, consider potential risks from the projects and help reduce these risks, among which environmental concerns aren’t the least.
There is precedent in St. James Parish for environmental activism.
In 1997, area residents won a battle, taken up for them by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, to stop Shintech Inc. from building a polyvinyl chloride plastics plant in Convent, on the site where Nucor now stands.
Shintech ultimately built a smaller plant in Plaquemine.
Louisiana ranks fifth in the country for the pounds of toxic chemicals released on-site and transferred off-site at plants in the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2012, the latest numbers available.
St. James Parish accounts for 2.76 percent of total toxic releases and transfers in the state, the EPA said.
The first time members of the Lambert family, of Paulina, got wind of the proposed building of five crude-oil storage tanks about 500 feet from their home on River Road was when workers showed up this past fall to install an industrial chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, along the property line between the Lamberts’ yard and a grain elevator company next door.
It was the first hint they had that a company called Wolverine Terminals had leased land from the ADM elevator company and was proposing to build a crude oil terminal and blending operation there.
David Lambert lives within shouting distance of the Wolverine site, with his wife and three children.
His uncle lives next door, and Lambert’s brother Todd, his wife and three children have a home at the back of the property. Other families’ homes line River Road on either side of the proposed Wolverine Terminals site.
David Lambert has become the lead voice in protesting Wolverine’s choice of site and has gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition against it.
He is fighting Wolverine’s application for air permits with the state Department of Environmental Quality and has raised awareness of the situation with parish leaders.
In November, the St. James Parish Council endorsed a resolution opposing the proposed site of Wolverine Terminals.
“We’re not against them coming into the parish. It’s where they want to build,” Lambert said.
The Convent area in the northwestern portion of the parish, where Nucor Steel is located, is the area where parish leaders hope new industry will remain concentrated, leaving the rest of the parish residential or rural.
The industrialization of the Convent area, though, hasn’t come without a cost.
“We probably had 60 to 70 houses that used to be here, torn down, (families) moved off,” Convent resident Gandy said. “The old people died, and their children sold the property.”
At the end of the school year in 2012, Romeville Elementary School closed after its student population dwindled to 88 children.
The students were transferred to Paulina Elementary or the Gramercy Elementary Magnet schools.
The old Romeville Elementary school building, off River Road, got a second life when the St. James Stevedoring Co. bought and began renovating the school for its headquarters.
“We were getting ready to build a new building. We were in the process of drawing up plans, then decided to look at Romeville School,” said John Crane, one of the owners of the company, which in 2010 celebrated its 25th anniversary in the parish.
The company had always been in partnership with the school and had adopted it in previous years, Crane said.
St. James Stevedoring Co. spearheads a new nonprofit organization of local industries called The Next 25 Foundation that will be focusing on job creation and training for young people in the parish.
“The incredible thing about Louisiana is we’ve got one of the greatest resources in the world and it’s right there,” he said, indicating the Mississippi River across the road and levee from where he stood.
Looking for work
Other industrial employers in St. James Parish include Gramercy Alumina, Quality Marine Services, Imperial Sugar, Mosaic Phosphates, Occidental Chemical Corp., Zen-Noh Grain Elevator, Chevron Phillips Chemical and Motiva Enterprises.
The newest industry, Nucor, which makes a type of iron feedstock for the company’s steel mills elsewhere in the U.S., employs 140 people and could employ more than 1,000 if several future phases are carried out at what could become a multibillion-dollar complex.
Next on the drawing board for the parish is South Louisiana Methanol, which announced last spring it will build a new methanol production plant on the west bank of the river.
Yet, unemployment in St. James Parish is at 12 percent, based on 2011 figures from the Greater New Orleans Regional Economic Alliance.
“It is very frustrating,” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said.
“By state law, we are prohibited from requesting a company hire a certain percentage of local workers or do businesses with a certain percentage of local businesses,” Roussel said.
The parish certainly asks and encourages industry to hire locally, he said.
And in the future, the parish is looking at asking companies to consider offering their employees an interest-free, $50,000 loan to build a home in St. James Parish, Roussel said.
“We are not growing in population,” he said.
“One of the issues they face is that they have a very close neighbor called Ascension Parish, one of the fastest growing parishes in the state,” said Troy Blanchard, LSU demographer.
“Ascension Parish is a very attractive place to live” and will continue to offer commuting options for workers who prefer to live there while traveling to work in nearby parishes, such as St. James.
Perhaps the most solid benefit that industry has brought to St. James Parish is increased sales tax collections when plants are built, go through turnaround operations and sell their industrial products.
Typically the biggest gains in sales tax revenue from any particular plant come when it’s being built.
From July 2008 to June 2013, annual parishwide sales and use tax collections increased steadily from approximately $17.5 million to $33.3 million.
Increased sales tax collections are one reason the St. James Parish School Board was able to give teachers raises this school year — and buy property and begin building a new football stadium for St. James High School, as part of a process to relocate the school away from industry, Superintendent Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce said.
St. James High is on the west bank of the river, by the levee in the community of St. James, with “tank farms heading toward it,” Luce said.
The School Board has property next to the school, and Luce said he is regularly contacted by economic developers and real estate agents looking for a site for new industrial plants.
A new stadium for the school is being built away from the river, in the Vacherie area, and the long-range plan is for a new high school to be built there one day, too, Luce said.
“We’re probably going to wait until we have an industrial partner to purchase St. James High and use that money” to build a new school away from the river, he said.
St. James High, with a large, new cafeteria and a wide expanse of front lawn, lined on either side with handsome live oak trees, would probably be a wonderful setting for a corporation’s headquarters, Luce said.