Hotels cashing in on influx of workers to Ascension, St. James

The hotel industry, far better known for tapping into the tourism trade, has its eyes on the industrial corridor south of Baton Rouge, where new construction is expected to lure tens of thousands of skilled workers to new or expanding chemical plants.

Many of those workers will be staying for months on end, providing a healthy source of revenue for hotels, RV parks and owners of rental homes.

The newest addition to a cluster of such businesses near the Sunshine Bridge will be the 113-room Legacy Suites, an extended-stay hotel scheduled to open in May 2015 with a convenience store on-site, free laundry room and full kitchens in the suites.

“We came down and did some research. We saw billions of dollars” in industrial projects, said J.T. Norville, chief financial officer with St. Louis-based Midas Hospitality, which has developed the Legacy Suites prototype that will open first in St. James Parish.

“We saw a dire need for an extended-stay hotel for construction and permanent workers,” Norville said.

“We have customers that stay up to a year” in some of its extended-stay properties in the Midwest, said Kurt Furlong, executive vice president with Midas Hospitality.

The company has plans to build five more Legacy Suites in five years in Louisiana, Norville said.

The new hotel will bring to four the number of hotels in a roughly 1-mile stretch along La. 70 at the western foot of the Sunshine Bridge.

A Best Western Plantation Inn that’s been there more than 20 years has been joined in the last five or six years by a Comfort Inn and a Supreme Inn & Suites.

The hotels are part of a cluster of small businesses situated near the Ascension/St. James parish line that have sprung up along the highway with sugar cane fields in the background.

The bridge and the tall, gray structures of nearby industrial plants dominate the landscape.

While hotel guests will continue to include tourists visiting plantation country, it’s the industrial workers who make up the majority of check-ins.

Britt Thompson, operations director with Raj Hospitality in Baton Rouge, which operates the Best Western Plantation Inn near the Sunshine Bridge, said the hotel regularly houses workers for several contractors with the plants.

“I would say, of the 61 rooms, 75 percent are with the base business” of workers in the industries, Thompson said.

Most of the hotel rooms are occupied during the week, he said.

“I would expect this trend will carry us for quite a while. It’s all up and down what I call the Highway 1 corridor, from Plaquemine down,” he said.

Meanwhile, the nearly one dozen hotels along the La. 30 corridor near the Tanger Outlet Center in Gonzales — on the east bank of the river — are staying full, and two more hotels are under construction there.

“During the week, the hotels and motels are full. There’s just tremendous demand,” said Mike Eades, head of the Ascension Economic Development Corp.

“I know the apartment market is extremely tight. That’s anecdotal,” he added.

He said the AEDC gets a few calls most weeks from people saying, “I can’t find an apartment.”

Hotels, apartments and recreational vehicle parks — they’re all competing to be home away from homes for workers coming here from across the country.

“With what we’ve announced already and what we expect to come out of our prospect line in the next few years, Louisiana is looking at more than $60 billion in new industrial projects, along with tens of thousands of new construction jobs and many thousands of new permanent jobs,” said Stephen Moret, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development.

Moret said some of the projects underway now or recently announced for St. James and Ascension parishes include:

More than $350 million in expansions at BASF in Geismar

Methanol plants under construction in a $1.1 billion Methanex project in Geismar

A $2.1 billion expansion at CF Industries near Donaldsonville

A $1.85 billion methanol complex recently announced by Yuhuang Chemical

Dan Borné, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said “actual numbers (of workers) are difficult to estimate because not every construction job will materialize at the same time. … There is a natural phasing that accompanies major projects.

“But there’s no doubt there will be increased and continued demand on infrastructure and housing for workers in one of those areas,” Borné said.

There have been some growing pains.

Both Ascension and St. James parishes emerged from monthslong moratoriums on new RV parks — Ascension this year and St. James last year — in light of the growing demand for the parks, with new ordinances in place to regulate their development.

In St. James Parish, an ordinance was adopted that added an application procedure to open an RV park and specified where the parks can be built.

In Ascension Parish, RV parks can be placed only in commercially zoned areas.

“We made new rules, a brand-new, refurbished ordinance,” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said.

“We were able to change the loopholes in the ordinance that was existing,” Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said. “We want to continue to grow and to grow in an orderly fashion.”

Martinez said he’s heard from different industry sources that there could be as many as 6,000 to 10,000 temporary construction workers in the area this fall.

Norville, with Midas Hospitality, said Legacy Suites will be serving not only the workers who will be here for a limited time but those “people who are going to be uprooting for permanent jobs” and need a place to stay during the transition.

“Then, on an ongoing basis, there are vendors, salespeople, lots of people traveling,” Norville said.

Workers, who often receive per diem pay for room and board from their employers, will sometimes come with their families.

Dale Williams, manager with the Supreme Inn and Suites on La. 18, which runs along La. 70 before intersecting at a traffic light near the bridge, said the 61-room hotel stays at an average of 65 percent booked, most of it by guests working at the plants.

Williams said she sees workers come from all over the country, with many coming from Texas and Mississippi, but also Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma.

“I had a crew just check out from Wisconsin,” Williams said.

One contractor comes regularly from Iowa, she said.

A contracting company may take 25 rooms for six weeks “and then they’re gone,” Williams said.

“In dealing with the contractors, you get to know them and what they want,” she said.

The Supreme Inn has an outdoor area with two barbecue pits, one charcoal and one gas.

“They get tired of fast food,” she said of hotel guests.

Some of the workers travel with their own grills, she said.

A new RV park and a neighborhood of small, neat rental homes, both of which recently opened nearby, have had some impact on the hotel’s business, she said.

“The demand is there,” she said of housing options for workers.

But, she added philosophically, “another 10 years of it and then it’s gone.”