St. Martinville, Breaux Bridge battle over land donation for community college

The situation of two groups fighting to donate property to a government agency — in this case a choice between properties in Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville for a new community college campus — is a unique one.

“This is a competitive donation,” said Stephen Smith, a member of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and chairman of the nonprofit LCTCS Facilities Corp. “Those two words you don’t usually see together.”

The competition over where to replace South Louisiana Community College’s Evangeline campus has led to a charge that the selection process is improperly weighted in favor of St. Martinville over Breaux Bridge.

Breaux Bridge businessmen Ray Pellerin and son Frank Pellerin — who offered a 9-acre site — claim the process used to recommend a site to replace South Louisiana Community College’s existing campus in St. Martinville was flawed.

The college issued a request for land donations last year to locate a $9.2 million building to replace its existing Evangeline campus off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in St. Martinville. The process was overseen by the LCTCS Facilities Corp., a private, nonprofit group created to help expedite capital outlay projects within the system.

A review committee selected the city of St. Martinville’s proposal of 9 acres off La. 31 near the old Martin Mills plant over the Pellerins’ offer of 9 acres off Rees Street in Breaux Bridge.

The St. Martinville site recommendation awaits final approval by the LCTCS board. The board’s next meeting is Wednesday. As of Monday, the Evangeline campus property was not on the agenda.

The Pellerins, who own a chain of funeral homes and an insurance company, claim the review committee didn’t follow its own requirements outlined in the request for land donation document and that St. Martinville Mayor Thomas Nelson made public comments alluding to assurances from LCTCS officials that the St. Martinville site was a done deal.

The St. Martinville property is owned by the Levert family, longtime sugarcane farmers turned real estate developers, and at the time of the announcement of the site recommendation in April, the city of St. Martinville didn’t have possession of the property.

The request for land donation document lays out requirements, including that the land must be free and clear and ready for transfer after board approval. The request document also outlines other conditions, such as requiring the site to have existing utilities infrastructure and be located within city limits.

The St. Martinville site doesn’t comply with either of those conditions, Frank Pellerin said.

“How can you donate land you don’t have?” asked Ray Pellerin.

Efforts to reach Nelson for comment were unsuccessful Monday. In a previous interview, the mayor said the property would be annexed into the city and the city would cover the cost to set up utilities on the site.

Through their attorney, the Pellerins spelled out their concerns and requested the LCTCS board of supervisors consider their Breaux Bridge property.

Attorneys for LCTCS Facilities Corp. say no laws were broken in the selection process. Further, the request for land donation document allows the LCTCS Facilities Corp. to waive requirements in the document at its discretion, according to a response to the Pellerins’ letter from Leo Hamilton, an LCTCS Facilities Corp. attorney.

The proposals are still under review by the LCTCS board of supervisors, said board member Smith.

“We’re still trying to make a decision on who’s the best partner and what’s the best (site) for students to be served,” Smith said.

The Pellerins are proposing a 9-acre tract off Rees Street, behind the family’s life insurance building. The Pellerins also offered to donate a 13-acre tract instead if it is considered better suited for the campus. Both properties are construction-ready.

“I could sell that property for over a million dollars probably, but that’s not the point. We want to make this thing accessible and give the opportunities to all the kids,” Ray Pellerin said.

The businessmen said they were able to raise more than $100,000 in scholarship pledges to support students should the college move to Breaux Bridge.

The existing St. Martinville campus, located near the city’s center, enrolled about 30 students this summer and enrollment is projected at 60 for the fall semester, said Christine Payton, SLCC public relations director. The campus has launched strategic recruiting efforts with outreach to community groups, churches and high schools, she said.

The low enrollment of the existing St. Martinville site and the proposed site’s location within about 12 miles of an existing SLCC campus in New Iberia add to the Pellerins’ concerns about the process and the committee’s rationale.

“We’ve got I-10 and are closer to the kids who go to school north of I-10, and they didn’t even consider those kids,” Ray Pellerin said.

The Pellerins said they’ll continue to fight to give their land away.

“Do what’s right for the kids. Don’t do what’s right for the politicians,” Ray Pellerin said. “Is this to help the economy of an area or is it to help students get an education? If it’s not about the kids, then we’re going about the wrong way with this thing.”

A plan to replace the existing campus has been in the works for the past few years with funding for the new campus tied to 2007 legislation that funded more than $170 million for multiple projects across the community and technical college system.

The new campus was to be located across the street from the existing one on land donated by the St. Martin Parish School Board. Construction was set to begin in July 2013, but was delayed after architects questioned the reasonableness of the site because it would landlock the campus. There’s no money tied to the legislation for a property purchase, so a search for land donations started last year.

When SLCC announced the donation of the property in April by the city of St. Martinville and the pending board approval, it said construction would begin this summer.