St. Mary Parish is located on the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Multi-modal transportation avenues and 660 miles of navigable inland waterways make this an ideal place for the shipping, fabrication and fishing industries. Situated between New Orleans and Lafayette, this area has grown from an agricultural base to a mix of agriculture and industry.
It is said that St. Mary Parish contains some of the most productive workers in the world. A new power construction project, worth $130 million, is underway, and the area is also touted for its marine services. We spoke with Frank Fink, director of economic development for the parish and Dean Anthony Baham, dean at South Central Louisiana Technical College.
Morgan City is the largest of the five main communities or cities in the parish of 54,000 residents. There is also Baldwin, Franklin – the parish seat, and the site of about four hundred antebellum homes – Patterson and Berwick. The Chitimacha Nation sits within the parish, but is independent.
When the parish started, agriculture was its main form of industry. A tremendous amount of land was set aside for planting sugar cane, as that was the primary product. Currently, the parish is second in the state in producing sugar cane. Being located on the Gulf of Mexico meant that seafood was another a predominant trade. The economy developed in the early 1900s with cypress wood harvesting, though this lasted for only about thirty years until it became depleted.
“The parish has many advantages for businesses. These include prime industrial sites with multi-modal access and utilities available including power, water, sewer and natural gas. Publically-owned sites, two ports and municipal airports can be leased with build-to-suit options. There is no property tax on land and publically built structures,” says Frank.
After the Second World War, the first offshore oil wells were discovered in Morgan City, and this changed the parish and region. The oil boom expanded many companies, and entrepreneurs became very successful. One of these, Oceaneering, started as a cooperative of five divers. Today the company runs a manufacturing facility for remote operating vehicles in Morgan City and is a multi-billion dollar company. The related service industry grew, with companies such as Transocean, Tidewater Marine Inc. and InterMoor.
“As the offshore industry grew, so did ship builders to accommodate that growth. This included Conrad Industries, Bollinger and Gulf Craft. There were numerous repair yards and suppliers to the industry for diesel engines, machined shafts and parts,” says Frank.
There was a need for larger, more efficient supply boats. Aluminum vessels came into vogue, necessitating a larger fabrication workforce. The faster vessels were deployed by the coastguard and foreign governments as patrol boats, mounted with high technology weaponry.
St. Mary Parish is known for its heavy industry in steel and aluminum fabrication. What many people do not know, is that the parish is the foremost producer of carbon black in North America. “Carbon black’s primary use is in tires, providing strength. It is also found in dyes, plastics and almost anything that has black in it, such as computers and desks,” says Frank.
Birla Carbon, Cabot Carbon and Orion Engineered Carbons are the main producers of carbon black here. The barge and rail access was a key factor in locating here. Raw materials and low-grade oil are brought in by barge and the finished product dispatched primarily by rail.
A new power construction project will be running by mid-2018. It is a collaboration between Cabot Carbon and Cleco, the local electrical utility to develop a clean power project. Cleco needs to add power at the south end of its grid and saw an opportunity to utilize available hot gas discharged from the Cabot Carbon facility as fuel.
The project will require $130 million in investment: $80 million for the power plant and $50 million for infrastructure to bring the clean gas to the Cleco power plant at the Cabot site. The gas would heat steam sent to a power generation plant to create fifty megawatts of power, enough to supply 17,000 homes. Cleco would be the owner of the plant, and Cabot will receive electricity, with Cleco selling the balance to other customers.
“The project will provide up to four hundred jobs during construction and twenty permanent jobs upon completion. There is also the potential for other forms of power generation at the other carbon black facilities in the parish,” says Frank.
Multi-modal transportation opportunities will be useful as the plant progresses and will continue to serve the area well as industry needs grow. The flat topography of the area makes multi-modal transportation quite practical.
The parish borders the Gulf of Mexico to the south and the Atchafalaya Basin to the north. The Atchafalaya River flows through the parish, intersecting with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway – a barge canal from Brownsville, Texas to Tampa, Florida.
“Its intersection provides three barge routes into the Mississippi River at New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Old River, north of Baton Rouge. The parish is in a direct line north from the Panama Canal into the Atchafalaya River. There is also a four-lane US Highway 90 extending east-west across the parish,” says Frank.
There are two Class I railroads into the parish and the Louisiana and Delta serviced short line into the industrial areas. Wedell Williams Memorial Airport offers instrument landing capabilities. It has more than 5,000 feet of runway and can accommodate planes as large as 737s.
There are two shallow draft ports at Morgan City. The Port of West St. Mary is on an industrial park that borders on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, with more than one thousand acres of land available for industrial development and barge and rail access.
St. Mary Parish is well-known for its marine services, and the diving school is the best in the county. Young Memorial Technical College in Morgan City is part of the South Central Louisiana Technical College, one of thirteen colleges in the state’s community and technical college system.
“The main campus offers manufacturing/construction trades including welding, machine tool technology, air conditioning and refrigeration. It also offers general contractor training for license application. In addition: practical nursing, medical office assistant and certified nurse’s assistant,” says Anthony.
The marine operation was established fifty-five years ago to meet the needs of growing marine and oil and gas industries, particularly the demands of the offshore oil field environment. The H & B Marine & Petroleum Safety Training Centre has always been a leader in marine safety training. The curriculum is recognized both domestically and internationally.
It has a commercial diving program spawned in the eighties to satisfy local industry needs. It is recognized worldwide, drawing students from Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria and elsewhere. The program has evolved through contact with industry leaders, diving companies, suppliers and manufacturers of diving equipment.
“It is roughly about a seven-month program. In the diving program, there are over ten certifications. A student can come in with no knowledge and leave ready to enter the workforce. Our programs are Council of Occupation and Education (COE) accredited, and we have benchmarks that we meet with all of our programs,” says Anthony. The program has an impressive job placement rate.
This is only one of three courses that are offered for commercial diving training, and this the only diving school in the state that is state-sanctioned. In the marine industry, there are about thirty-nine coast guard certificates. Twenty-five safety certifications come from groups such as The American Petroleum Institute, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and International Association of Drilling Contractors. Some of these are for offshore work such as flying a helicopter or working on an oil rig.
“It is interesting to note that, as it pertains to the disaster in the Gulf from a few years back, we trained a lot of those guys that made it out there,” says Anthony.
Other programs include industrial marine electronics and marine manufacturing. This provides a specialized skill set that is required to perform repairs on oil production equipment.
“The college has also developed an inland water survival course, designed to train students to respond to ‘what if’ situations in dealing with emergencies,” says Frank. The college was given $7.9 million from the US Department of Labor to expand registered apprenticeship programs in the transportation industry.
Young Memorial Technical College responds directly to the needs of industry and this has enabled those partners to be leaders in the manufacturing, oilfield service and marine industries. “We are really proud of this institution. We don’t have a four-year college here, but this is the industry’s college of choice,” says Anthony.
“We do what the industry wants. We don’t wait for them to ask; we don’t study it; we just do it!” said South Central Louisiana Technical College Chancellor Dr. Earl Meador.
St. Mary Parish claims to have some of the most productive workers in the world. This is quite a boast, but Frank sees this as a part of the Cajun culture in this right-to-work state. The workforce works hard and plays hard.
“Workers thrive on the model that runs with a company environment that is open to new ideas for process and production improvements. The competitive nature of business spurs them on. They were raised in a competitive culture that is brought to everything they do in the workplace,” says Frank. Many local companies were developed through creativity in response to a need.