WBR levee park expansion could revive ‘Bonfest’ event

Efforts to extend the paved park that extends along the top of the Mississippi River levee in West Baton Rouge Parish are gaining traction.

Local officials say the project will provide more room for people attending riverfront events, allowing the city to revive its Christmas-themed Bonfest — bonfires on the levee — which has been discontinued for more than a decade.

“Back in the ’90s, it was a very successful event; it used to get thousands of people here,” said Adrian Genre, Port Allen’s chief administrative officer. “Right now, the mayor is in the planning stages with his community group to get it back going again this year.”

The park extension plan got a boost last week when the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District approved a permit request from the city of Port Allen. The permit greenlights a project to make the park more than a mile long.

But the riverfront project, which has already experienced a few setbacks, still faces some challenges. The city has to get easement approval from property owners that the proposed extension could encroach upon.

“I hope we don’t have any problems; I don’t think we will, but you never know,” said Terry Vincent, Port Allen’s director of public works.

Vincent’s comments came after the levee board last week approved the city’s permit request, contingent upon the city getting the easement approvals.

The project hinges upon approval of about 10 landowners, Vincent said.

In the request to the levee board, the project’s engineer asked for permission to extend the levee-top park to the north by 3,268 feet to build a paved walking/bike trail.

The walking trail will mean improvements to the existing dirt-top road that already runs atop the levee. The extension will be 10 feet wide with a 4-inch-deep asphalt surface.

Unlike the existing part of the linear park, which includes benches, lighting and a landscaped pavilion, the design for the extended portion does not feature any lighting or electrical improvements or additional ramp entrances, according to the city’s request.

The project will cost about $120,000 to complete, Vincent said.

The West Baton Rouge Parish Council agreed to put up more than $50,000 for the project while the city is footing the rest of the bill with funds earmarked for riverfront development.

The parish decided to step in with financial help after former Port Allen mayor Roger Bergeron announced in 2012 that the project would have to be put on the back burner because of budgetary shortfalls. At that time, plans called for only a 495-foot extension of the levee-top park.

With the up-front money provided by the parish, the city was able to stretch the park — currently a little more than a half a mile long — to the city limits at Rosedale Road.

Parish officials have previously said that future phases of the project will extend the park all the way to the U.S. 190 bridge.

Vincent said the city hopes to use city and park crews to start overlay work on the project next month, assuming there are no objections from landowners.

“That’s really going to help keep the costs down,” Vincent said.

City leaders expect the addition to mean larger crowds for West Baton Rouge’s annual Fourth of July festivities, which already attracts about 10,000 attendees annually.

With the additional space, the city also plans to revive the Christmas-themed Bonfest event.

Genre said the city is also partnering with the West Baton Rouge Museum, which has secured a grant it intends to use to build a third entrance ramp onto the levee-top park on Court House Street similar to the pavilion-type ramp entrance across the street from City Hall.

No timeline has been announced yet for the museum-backed renovations to the levee-top park, he said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.