LIVINGSTON - It's been pushed for years, but to no avail.
The argument for a civic center or event center in Livingston Parish has legs. Local officials, politicians, and citizens have all chimed in the ear of Eric Edwards, director of Livingston Parish Tourism, and Jonathan 'JT' Taylor, Vice President.
Edwards, who visited the Livingston Parish Master Plan Committee meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5, discussed the many reasons that have reached his desk on why the parish needs a civic center:
- Local graduations
- Commercial growth
- Equestrian events
- RV parks and gatherings
- Centralized disaster recovery during a hurricane or flood
The committee asked Edwards to attend to participate in their discussion of the primary road list for the "economic corridor." The corridor was designated as the focus for the master plan committee after reconnecting with the parish council. It is an area, roughly 1.5 miles north and south of Interstate 12, wherein the 2013 Master Plan specified an immediate need for improved zoning and infrastructure to draw industrial and commercial real estate to Livingston Parish.
Development along the corridor would bring jobs and tax dollars.
Edwards envisions that any civic center project would need to be adjacent to Interstate 12, and would fall within the "economic corridor" designation.
Committee Chairman Gerald Burns added that civic centers usually bring commercial development adjacent to their real estate - including restaurants and hotels, which provide jobs.
In a discussion that occurred before the meeting, Burns asked Edwards to come make the civic center pitch to the committee. Burns wanted to add it to the agenda because traffic would be an issue, and any location would need to be able to feed traffic into and off of Interstate 12.
However, Edwards said that land is still a priority - the tourism office doesn't have it. A feasibility study was done three years ago to look at land, perhaps behind the Livingston Parish Fairgrounds, Edwards explained. Unfortunately, that plan would not work due to lack of access to the land and lack of visible traffic, when compared to I-12.
But, getting near to I-12 brings its own challenges.
"It's difficult to get signage on I-12, you have to own land there," Edwards explained, "DOTD, federal DOTD are real strict on their rules."
Land next to I-12 is costly, and improving infrastructure in the area usually requires the state or federal government to be involved or, at the least, give the green light.
Edwards was then asked how much land would be needed to accomplish the goal of bringing a civic center to Livingston Parish.
"At least 38 acres," Edwards explained, "we really need 100."
Edwards' initial plan was for a, minimum, 5,000 seat center, with "four or five breakout rooms for different events." Due to growth patterns, he was asked by committee member Larry O'Neill if it would not be better to shoot for 7,500 seats - to which Edwards agreed.
"You can always have the architects design for future growth in mind," Edwards said, "so expansion is not costly.
"And we have those other uses, 'or modules,' that we discussed - that's part of it."
Edwards was then asked by Julie Dyason-Norris, an addition to the committee after District 4 Councilman John Wascom dropped out, how many partners did Edwards have on the project - to which Edwards replied that he had plenty of support partners in the parish, but not many financial.
That's when he was asked, directly, how much his envisioned project would cost.
"$50 million," Edwards said, "and $500 - $600,000 per year to operate.
"You're looking at a three-to-five year honeymoon period on these buildings, so they might make money then - but that usually stops."
Edwards, a native of Farmerville (population 2,500), in Union Parish (population 20,000) said that he knew the parish didn't have that kind of money. However, he said entities like Rural Development (an arm of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD) and FEMA did have money and had constructed civic centers for smaller parishes throughout the state.
Edwards cited his home parish, Union, as one such location - it has a civic center, he told the committee.
Before landing at the Livingston Parish Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Edwards ran the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and had also traveled the south operating civic centers.
He said he understands the business, and that FEMA and Rural Development could chip in $10-$15 million each, but the parish would have to have some "skin in the game" as well.
"I think it can be done without a property tax," Edwards said.
Edwards said he "knew people" in the parish who would spring for a property or sales tax, to be bonded for the remainder of the construction cost, as long as it "expired at some point." He also offered the idea of going to the state legislature and asking for an increase in the hotel & motel occupancy tax.
The current, 3-cent room rate funds the CVB's annual operations.
Land is the first priority, Edwards said, and then finding funding for the building.
But the committee - and the parish - had a part to play, he said. After spending the money to construct a civic center, it would be a shame to not have roads that could handle the traffic to-and-from Interstate 12.