(Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Frank Cagnolatti, vice chairman John Lanoux and commissioner Terry Richey are among those drafting updated zoning codes. Photography by Don Kadair)
In Ascension Parish, burgeoning schools and steady job growth combined with bumper-to-bumper traffic and the ceaseless building of homes are all signs of steady growth. But as the population continues to increase and change, leaders are tasked with planning for the future of their parish without a crystal ball.
In Gonzales, a small city with big retail chops and a growing natural gas industry, leaders have worked together to create an updated master plan as it grapples with growth.
“Ascension has the highest median household income than any other parish in Louisiana,” says Mike Eades, president and CEO of Ascension Economic Development Corp. “That translates into buying power, but it also attract retailers like Tanger and Cabela’s, and those big retailers attract people from a very broad market.”
The Tanger Outlet Mall and Cabela’s outdoor sports store are two of Gonzales’ largest retailers. They’re located a stone’s throw away from one another at Interstate 10 and La. 30, a busy corridor lined with restaurants, businesses and industrial plants. Those plants have attracted a more diverse workforce, from within the state and both nationally and internationally.
This increased workforce has caused the population of Ascension Parish and Gonzales to skyrocket. Between 2000 and 2013, the parish population grew from 76,627 to 114,393—or slightly more than 49%—according to U.S. Census and state data. Gonzales, meanwhile, saw its population rise 26% over that span, from 8,156 people to 10,301.
People are flocking to Ascension because of jobs and schools, says Lonnie Roussel, broker and owner of Roussel Real Estate. Ascension Parish Public Schools is ranked among the top five school districts in the state, and the increase in student volume has created the need to build four more schools—three elementary, one middle and one high school.
“When families move here, the schools are the biggest reason why,” says Roussel. “In the next five to 10 years, if we keep the schools as strong as they are, you will continue to see an increase in population. A strong school system will always drive people here.”
The population of Gonzales is expected to double within the next 10 years, says Janet Tharp, director of planning for Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence. The City of Gonzales hired CPEX, a nonprofit that coordinates rural and urban planning in Louisiana, to update its archaic 1997 master plan.
“What it came down to is what do people want?” says John Lanoux, vice chairman of the Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission. “We got a lot of input from the people in the city and went from there.”
CPEX was paid $162,500 to develop the master plan, which the Gonzales City Council approved last August. It envisions a more connected and concentric downtown Gonzales. It also supports the idea of a commuter rail stop along the proposed line running from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. “We are in the running to get a railroad station from Baton Rouge to New Orleans,” says Frank Cagnolatti, president of the Planning and Zoning Commission. “That would be a big draw for our downtown area.”
Separately, the city is paying CPEX $60,000 to update its zoning codes to align with the larger plan. “People really wanted a comprehensive plan on where and how to grow,” says Tharp. “We took a real strategic approach to address the issues they were dealing with. There’s more of a demand for smaller lots and more of a Main Street kind of feel.”
The updated zoning codes have yet to be approved—the council is expected to take them up soon—but the idea is to make them more specific, current and easier for developers to build more mixed-use projects and higher density homes that residents want. They would also require that developers include amenities such as playgrounds and walking paths for high-density projects, depending on the number of units. The updated codes will meet the needs of the new demographics of people moving in, says Roussel.
“There are people who are here from so many different areas of the country and even the world,” he says. “There’s a shift in what they want in a home. They used to want land and acreage, but now it’s not uncommon that both parents are working and there’s a limited amount of time to cut grass and people really aren’t entertaining at home as much. They are always out and doing things with their family. Now they want homes within communities where they can walk to grocery stores and everything is very close.”
Enter the Conway Plantation development on La. 44, south of Interstate 10, in Gonzales.
Expected to break ground later this year, Conway is a 350-acre mixed-use development, a kind of town-within-a-town consisting of 950 single family homes ranging from $200,000 to $500,000, as well as 500 apartments and 200,000 square feet of commercial space. It will also feature parks, a pool, lakes and jogging trails. The concept is families can take a walk, have a cup of coffee, go out to eat, visit their doctors and go grocery shopping without ever having to get in their cars, says Prescott Bailey, area president of Lafayette-based Southern Life Style Development, the company developing the property.
Conway is what happens when millennials and baby boomers want the same things, Bailey says.
“Those are the two biggest demographics coming to us,” says Bailey. “They don’t want to get in their cars and sit in traffic when they get home from work, and they don’t want to take care of an acre lot they don’t use much anymore. And while a millennial may not have the purchasing power of a boomer, they can still move into nice apartments or buy a townhome, and this project allows all of these age groups to be together. By doing what we do, we don’t alienate anyone, and that makes for a better community.”
While growth is good, it can also be frustrating—both for residents and elected officials. Five members of the Ascension Parish Council recently proposed a six-month building moratorium for all areas except Sorrento and Gonzales on the east side of the river because of traffic and infrastructure concerns. While Gonzales is not impacted by this moratorium, Mayor Barney Arceneaux says he understands the traffic frustrations.
“Our biggest problem is traffic,” says Arceneaux. “I’m excited about new development and the revitalization to the area, but we have to work closely with the state to make sure we alleviate some of that traffic. Mornings and afternoons on La. 30 and the Burnside Avenue areas get really, really hectic.”
Forty percent of Gonzales residents surveyed earlier this year identified traffic congestion as the biggest problem in the city, while 16% said population growth was their biggest concern. The survey of roughly 200 Gonzales residents was conducted by Magellan Strategies of Baton Rouge and paid for by Arceneaux and Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson.
There are plans for a roundabout to be built at the entrance of Conway as well as on La. 30 near the outlet mall to streamline some of the traffic, city officials say. Planning for traffic, population growth, new retail and job expansion is important for the vitality of the parish, says Eades.
“A lot of people have the misconception that business doesn’t like zoning, but that’s not true,” says Eades. “Planning is extremely important. We’re a big supporter of well-planned, thought-out master plans. Knowing is always better than unknowing.”
Eades is the brains behind the West Bank Industrial Overlay ordinance, a plan to develop 17,000 acres of river frontage into a business “megaplex” with shared services that would streamline business and create more jobs.
“What we envision is shared service development where you would have more efficient use of land,” says Eades. “Instead of everyone building their own docks, our thought is, ‘Let’s build megadocks that can be shared.’”
As industry along the river grows, so does industry within the parish. And while recent decline of oil prices is a concern for Ascension Parish, it is not its sole economic driver, Eades says.
“Ascension is not oil dependent,” he says. “We are more natural gas dependent. But it’s the relationship of the price of natural gas to the price of oil that is very critical. A lot of companies have oil and gas ownerships. If their profits go down on the oil side, it affects the whole company.”
But for now, business is good and the population is growing. Gonzales and Ascension Parish continue to be places people want to live and work in, and city and parish leaders say as long as they adequately plan for future population increases, their communities will thrive.
“Growth without the right type of planning doesn’t work for anyone,” says Lanoux. “That’s why we need to look at everything, update our plans and see how it will all effect the future.”