Hopes rise for maligned St. Mary tourist center

Cajun Coast facility nears completion after sinking

“We build things on the swamp all the time. This should not have happened.” DALE ROGERS, St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission vice chairman

Carrie Stansbury said her heart sank in June 2012 when she heard the almost-finished tourist center here had partially sunk into the cypress tree-laden swamp it was designed to showcase.

Dipping 4½ feet in the middle, the $3.77 million Cajun Coast Welcome Center and Interpretive Facility had suffered a failure brought on by a faulty foundation design: There were too few piles, and those were not driven deep enough into the earth to provide a solid foundation.

Two years later, with insurance money, a new builder that specializes in raising big structures and different architects, Stansbury has moved her crew of two employees into the center from a temporary site on Cotton Road in Patterson. She hopes to soon have two more full-time and some part-time employees.

“It’s been challenging,” said Stansbury, executive director of the center. “But the reasons we built the facility are still as valid as when we started (planning) the project in 2003, which is to show people what St. Mary Parish has to offer.”

Criticism, which was relentless in the weeks after it sank, could fade away altogether when the center opens sometime in the next few months.

The center faces U.S. 90, and in its backyard is swamp, with moss draping high in the cypress trees and cypress knees protruding from the stagnant water. A few thousand feet to the north is Lake Palourde.

It won’t have everything at first, like the planned interactive, educational pods that showcase titled themes. One theme, “In the Air,” will offer information on bird watching and on an aviation museum in nearby Patterson. It’ll also feature information on the first Tarzan movie, a silent film made in 1917 starring Elmo Lincoln. Why is Tarzan in the “In the Air” theme? He spent a lot of time in the air swinging on vines tree to tree, Stansbury said.

Now, electrical outlets line the floor of the center’s tall visitors room, awaiting the pods.

One day, she said, a walkway will lead tourists from the back porch through the swamp for closer viewing.

Long journey

Envisioned in 2003, the center has traveled a long and arduous road. Governed by the nine-member St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission, the initiative for the center started with no money. In lobbying for a welcome center and an accompanying interpretive facility, the commission cited a Richmond, Virginia, endeavor where three welcome centers added to the area’s economic growth.

St. Mary officials, who live in a parish that is many parts bodies of water and swampland, produced the Morgan City Atchafalaya Gateway Initiative. The effort sought to capitalize on the area’s tourism strengths, what might pull some of the 20,000 vehicles that daily travel U.S. 90 through Morgan City, according to St. Mary Parish Tourism Commission literature, which uses state Department of Transportation and Development data.

Through the years, the commission saved almost $1.35 million, went to the bond markets for $1.7 million, received $425,000 in state capital outlay proceeds and got another $300,000 from the state Department of Natural Resources, Stansbury said.

In 2009, Aegis Construction, of LaPlace, was awarded construction with a bid of $3.77 million.

The fall

In June 2012, as the center was nearing completion, a painter inside the center noticed a crack in the wall, leading to the center’s evacuation. The center’s middle sank a noticeable 4½ feet while the sides remained stable.

“We build things on the swamp all the time,” said Dale Rogers, vice chairman of the St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission. “This should not have happened.”

Stansbury said the building went through a slow, “graceful sink” that — because of how modern buildings are engineered to bend and not break — left the interior and the remainder of the center free of massive damage.

But it did need to be repaired. following an out-of-court mediated settlement, EHM Contractors, of Foristell, Missouri, used $3.4 million in settlement money to cut through the building’s cement bottom, add on to the piles and drive them much farther into the earth, and hydraulically jack the building up 1 inch at a time. According to the Tourism Commission, the number of piles went from the original 57 to 228, all of which were driven 120 feet below the swamp’s bottom.

It took a while: EHM started work after the court settlement in January 2013, and center personnel just recently moved in.

Rogers said the tourism commission will meet Friday to discuss the center. He said members also will discuss the next phase — building a parking lot, a project separate from the center’s construction.

“Hopefully, (the parking lot) will happen this year,” Rogers said.

Two hard years

What was touted as one of the center’s strengths — being in full view of flowing U.S. 90 traffic — in June 2012 morphed into a daily reminder of a big, visible failure: The building’s sunken center was noticeable.

Soon after the center sank, some social media users in St. Mary Parish used platforms like Facebook and Twitter to post biting criticism of the center and everyone involved, Stansbury said.

She said the commission, she and her employees were subject to daily social media-fed vitriol.

“I tell my staff ‘do not respond to social media,’ ” Stansbury said. “You can’t win on social media.”

Editor’s Note: This story was modified on May 14, 2014, to correct that some of the funds used for the center’s renovations came from an out-of-court mediated settlement, not a court settlement. The Advocate regrets the error.