PROACTIVE MINDSET: GO Group Executive Director Karen Clapp near a construction project in downtown Lake Charles. (Photo by Lee Celano)
As southwest Louisiana’s population grew over the years, communities reacted to that growth as it happened. Comprehensive planning was pretty much a foreign concept.
But with possible industrial projects worth nearly $100 billion anticipated for the region, including some $40 billion already under construction, officials realized it might be a good idea to prepare for the impact ahead of time.
“This community’s been very accustomed to being reactive,” says Karen Clapp, who is organizing the planning effort. “Being proactive is new, but we’re really starting to have to think on our feet.”
Clapp is the executive director of the Southwest Louisiana Task Force for Growth and Opportunity, nicknamed the GO Group. She was hired last February, but the planning process by southwest Louisiana officials began in early 2013 following Sasol’s announcement of a massive potential industrial project. Local leaders wanted to coordinate the efforts of various agencies that seldom work together.
In 2014, Sasol paid for a study about how the industrial expansion would affect housing, utilities, education, workforce development, transportation, public safety, public health, the environment, small businesses and community relations in Calcasieu, Cameron, Beauregard, Jefferson Davis and Allen parishes. The study projected population growth of 22,000 for the region by 2019.
That study informs the GO Group’s research. Most of the impact is predicted for Calcasieu, so that’s where the GO Group primarily is focused, but their work will inform preparations throughout the region.
“Don’t let growth define your community,” Clapp says, summarizing the group’s mission. “Challenge your community to define what growth will look like for them, and how they can make it work for their benefit.”
The group’s steering committee includes cities and police juries, school boards, economic development groups, the Port of Lake Charles, McNeese State University and SOWELA Technical Community College. Clapp is a full-time director, paid by the City of Lake Charles and the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, but everyone else involved in the various task forces and subcommittees is a volunteer.
“The GO Group is probably something that every community needs,” says R.B. Smith, vice president of workforce development with the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. “It engages people in the government of their communities.”
Volunteers are learning how various local agencies and organizations function and discussing ways to improve those systems. Much of that work so far has been happening behind the scenes, though they’re also seeking input and feedback from the general public.
In mid-January, the group held three community meetings to talk about drainage. Area residents say new development in recent years has caused flooding in areas that never flooded before.
Calcasieu has 14 entities responsible for drainage, says Mary Kaye Eason, who chairs the GO Group’s Public Service Improvements task force.
“They all take their responsibility very seriously,” she says. “But when they solve a problem in one drainage district, often they’ve sent the water to another district.”
Residents are frustrated that there isn’t an imminent solution for the flooding they’re already experiencing, but retrofitting existing neighborhoods is expensive and time consuming. Right now, the goal is to keep the problem from getting much worse.
“We have to stop the problem at the development stage, so that we can eventually catch up,” Eason says.
One way to do that is by implementing “low-impact development” standards, incorporating more green space and technologies such as permeable pavement to better absorb rainwater. While Eason feared that low-impact techniques would be too expensive, she says it actually can be cheaper to build that way. And so far, she says she hasn’t heard from any developers who oppose the idea.
Eason says three drainage studies have been done in Calcasieu over the past 20 or so years, but very little changed. Now, she thinks there is a sense of urgency and momentum to do something about it.
As for housing, Clapp says developers will have no problem meeting the demand for permanent homes. But she says most people don’t fully comprehend the need for temporary worker housing, which many fear will devalue their properties and bring undesirable elements to their communities.
According to an Associated Press report, the projected demand for housing in Calcasieu Parish in 2016 is 17,000 units. Right now, only 10,000 units are expected to be available. Demand is expected to rise in 2017.
In the absence of temporary homes for construction workers, longtime residents are being squeezed out of their apartments as rents are increased to take advantage of greater demand. Consequently, more people are seeking housing assistance, including people at higher income levels than had sought such assistance in the past, Clapp says.
Four or five worker villages have been permitted, says Calcasieu Parish Police Jury administrator Bryan Beam, but more are needed. Of the various issues related to the industrial expansion, temporary housing is politically the most controversial.
Beam says residents worry about traffic and security, and want the villages as close to the plants the workers are building as possible.
“We’re trying to make them more palatable,” he says. “It’s never going to be perfect. But the important point is that it’s temporary. No one is going to want that next to them for the next 20 years.”
But if the village is gone when the construction project is over, that seems a fair trade for the benefits of growth, Beam adds.
Development standards are another thorny issue. No one wants to be told what they can or can’t do with their property.
Often, a neighborhood is built inexpensively in a rural area, with the assumption that it will be annexed into a municipality later on. Connecting to the municipal water and sewer systems and bringing the development up to the city’s standards can be costly for taxpayers. It’s generally much cheaper and more efficient to develop where the infrastructure already exists.
One of the GO Group task forces is identifying areas most suitable for growth, taking into consideration issues like utilities, schools and potential for flooding.
“You don’t want to tell people, ‘Here’s where you’ve got to build,’” Beam says. “But if it costs us less to put you here, we’d rather have you here. If you plan on building something further out [from existing development], make sure you account for some basic services that we don’t want to have to put on the backs of the people that come after us.”
HARD DECISIONS AHEAD
As a financial incentive to develop to higher standards, authorities might consider allowing more and smaller lots, which also could be controversial in some areas.
“You have some urban and suburban uses pushing up against what has historically been rural,” Beam says. “That naturally brings a little tension. We’ve got to try to tamp that down as much as we can, respect both uses, but recognize that we’re going to have to grow.”
The industrial “boom,” as some have called it, won’t last forever, so local officials want to take full advantage of the opportunity. GO Group members don’t only want to preserve the things they already love about southwest Louisiana while the expansion is happening. They want to be left with a more prosperous, better organized and more sustainable community when it’s over.
Organizers say they’re pleased with the progress so far. But hard decisions must be made, and while they know the way things are done today has to change, most of the real work lies ahead.
“We have to make sure we’re diligent to carry out some of these things that have been brought forth,” Beam says. “Knowing and doing are two different things.”
The four task forces of the GO Group have set the following goals:
• identify areas most suitable for growth based upon infrastructure, schools, flood plains, etc.
• implement unified development codes and standards across all jurisdictions
• ensure that future plans and standards address various modes of transportation, including air, mass transit, pedestrian and cyclists
Public Service Improvements
• make Lake Charles Regional and Chennault International airports more efficient
• improve drainage services and systems
• improve the reliability and service capacity of water providers
• improve wastewater practices
• maintain and/or improve community fire ratings
Education and Workforce Development
• support development of a master plan for Calcasieu Parish Schools and other area systems
• determine whether local school curricula should be realigned with industry needs
• support the statewide effort to change negative perceptions regarding technical and industrial careers
Special Community-Related Initiatives
• identify and meet social services, community development and cultural development needs
• ensure that GO Group communication and civic engagement efforts properly support “community-driven change” initiatives
Details and updates are available at gogroupswla.com.
Originally published in the first quarter 2016 edition of 10/12 Industry Report. Read more from this issue at 1012industryreport.com.