By Della Hasselle / The New Orleans Advocate
December 21, 2017
After years of planning, several critical economic development projects in St. John the Baptist Parish are slated to be finished by the end of next year, amounting to more than $50 million in funds invested in construction since the beginning of 2017.
Among the projects is a new government administration building scheduled to open in the spring, according to parish officials. The project broke ground nearly 10 years after plans for it were drawn up and local taxpayers approved multiple bond issues to finance it.
The $9.4 million, 44,000-square-foot facility is designed to centralize government offices for most public services. It will include a new office for the parish president, a larger Parish Council chamber and a courtroom.
The council chamber will now include seating for more than 100 people, in addition to enhanced sound and camera systems.
The building will also house the registrar of voters, planning and zoning, code enforcement, clerk of court, finance, grants and council offices, according to Parish President Natalie Robottom.
"We are attempting to make a one-stop shop for our residents," Robottom said. "And we’re adding more parking, which is horrible right now and has always been horrible for our residents."
Designed by Murray Architects, the East Bank Government Complex is being constructed by Lamar Contractors LLC of Luling.
The two-story building will connect to the existing government complex at 1801 Airline Highway in LaPlace, which will be largely handed over to the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff's Office once the local government offices move out.
That will allow the Sheriff's Office to consolidate its operations; it now leases spaces throughout the parish, Robottom said.
The office building is on a long list of projects parish officials say have been completed this year or are in progress. Altogether, the parish has invested $32 million of its money and has secured another $17 million in state and federal funds.
Other projects slated for 2018 include the final phase of the Mississippi River Trail, a long-anticipated $5.2 million bike and recreational trail that extends from St. Charles to St. James Parish, and a new wastewater treatment facility in Reserve.
Additionally, $200,000 in improvements are expected to be finished on the parish's animal shelter next year, adding 22 new indoor and outdoor kennels and a small dog quarantine area.
The new building, the third at the shelter's complex, will allow workers to keep stray animals separate from adoptable animals, thereby minimizing exposure to illness or disease.
More than $7 million in work is underway on Belle Terre Boulevard in LaPlace, Robottom said. The project, which will improve drainage from Airline Highway to Interstate 10, adds to the millions of dollars that have been spent on improving roads parishwide through various programs.
Officials will also continue with a drainage project slated for Reserve, a new public safety complex on the west bank and several drainage projects throughout the parish.
And, while it won't be finished next year, Robottom said officials are negotiating to address the "No. 1 concern" for parish residents: a major structure designed to protect the parish's east bank from storm surge during hurricanes.
The presidents of St. John and St. Charles parishes are working with state elected officials, the Pontchartrain Levee District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to "seal an agreement" to begin work on the system, dubbed the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Risk Reduction Project.
It's unclear when it might be finished.
The new system, composed of earthen levees, floodwalls and pump stations, would run roughly parallel to Interstate 10 from the Bonnet Carre Spillway in St. Charles Parish to the Hope Canal in St. John Parish.
It's designed to shield 120,000 people and more than 7,000 structures from a so-called 100-year storm, or one with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.
Congress first authorized a study of the project in 1971. It sat dormant for lack of funding until it was revived in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, which put a swath of St. John Parish under water as storm surge swelled Lake Pontchartrain.
Funding has always been the main obstacle to the project's completion. The plan envisions a total cost of $744 million, with 65 percent coming from the federal budget and the rest from local sources. St. John's share would be about $50 million.
In recent years, Robottom has kept pressure on the Corps and other federal officials to get the project moving.
“Hurricane Isaac exposed the vulnerabilities of the River Parishes and the need for levee protection," she said in January. "West Shore is the parishes’ No. 1 priority, and we will not stop until this project is constructed.”
The various projects now in the works will complement several already finished in the parish in 2017, including a new senior center in Edgard to serve elderly residents.
The $650,000 center provides a 3,000-square-foot building for seniors to use on a daily basis; it includes a kitchen, a large activity room and a wrap-around porch.
It was funded through a 2014 bond issue and designed by the Duplantis Design Group. It's one of two centers for elderly residents in St. John; the east bank center is in Reserve.
The two centers are intended to enhance the quality of life for residents 60 and older. Breakfast and lunch are served daily, and activities include bingo, card games, birthday celebrations and field trips.