Of Acadian origins, St. Martin Parish, a thriving community in central Louisiana, is building on a budding tourism and agricultural economy to add a flourishing manufacturing sector. And to economic growth, attractive geography and quality of life, add cultural resurgence.
The region still has folk memories of a turbulent time when French-speaking settlers, known as Acadians – who had been evicted from what is now Canada’s Maritime Provinces and eastern Maine – settled in what would become Louisiana. These hardy folk roamed the swamps and bayous, and tilled the ground in the richly fertile region known as Acadiana. Many of today’s residents descend from them.
Today, the St. Martin Economic Development Authority (or SMEDA) works to enhance the region’s economic growth, attracting new business while simultaneously fostering existing business and population retention. SMEDA dates back to 1994, when a group of regional business professionals saw an unmet need for economic development. “There wasn’t anybody dedicated solely to economic development,” recalls Executive Director Jennifer Stelly. Now celebrating its 25th year, SMEDA continues its mission to both attract and retain jobs and businesses in Acadiana.
Rich cultural blend
The region’s biggest draw remains its people. Stelly remarks how tourists and visitors are equally enthralled by St. Martin’s rich blend of Acadian and Creole culture, creating an infectious joie de vivre. “That just intrigues people who come to visit us… it shows in everything we do. You can’t find it really anywhere else.”
St. Martin’s lucrative tourism industry has predictably enjoyed sturdy growth in all aspects as Acadian culture experiences a renaissance, spurring a natural increase in both tourism and immigration to the region.
“Forty or fifty years ago, speaking French around here was almost illegal,” Stelly remarks, but with new education programs, including French language immersion, showcasing regional culture, a new generation is rediscovering its heritage. “That’s appealing for people who are looking for that authentic experience,” Stelly says.
In the right place
St. Martin’s other big advantage remains its location. The parish is located right on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest freshwater swamp in the United States. This, plus the parish’s close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, has spurred food production and attracted sport fishermen and hunters from all over North America and beyond.
The parish is also located along Interstate 10, which serves much of America’s southernmost areas from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. This major artery has already attracted major players in the transportation support and logistics sector. “It just makes sense,” Stelly says. “It’s one of the busiest interstate systems in the country.”
Further, St. Martin parish sits only four miles from the intersection of Interstates 10 and 49, which run north from Louisiana into Arkansas and Missouri. These provide St. Martin with an excellent supply route to distribution plants in nearby Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. With these two major freight arteries right in St. Martin’s backyard, Stelly notes that “We’re kind of at a sweet spot in the state for transportation of goods.”
An additional advantage to St. Martin remains its ease of living. While the nearby city of Lafayette (population 126,000) does presently offer more jobs and infrastructure, a growing number of residents are being driven out by higher taxes and the bustle of urban living. St. Martin, by contrast, offers the lowest taxes in Acadiana region and an easier pace, making the region highly attractive to new residents and retirees in particular. “There are just a lot more different things to do in St. Martin Parish,” Stelly says, “at a slower pace, and a more affordable price point.”
SMEDA is a model of top-down economic development. Louisiana Economic Development (LED) is responsible for most state economic growth, working closely with smaller municipalities and development agencies such as SMEDA. As LED makes proposals for companies to relocate to Louisiana, SMEDA will check viable areas to see if it might have a good ‘fit.’
In LED’s recent ‘Certified Site’ program, state officials survey all factors of potentially developable land, beginning with a comprehensive environmental survey. If they decide the land is workable, they conduct all research and development (“The binder is six inches tall,” Stelly remarks) and pick up 75 percent of the cost.
The remaining 25 percent is divided between the local Business Development Officer, regional economic organization, and the landowner. In the end, Stelly sums up, “You can get a fully researched, ready-to-develop site for [a modest] investment.”
SMEDA’s relationships with St. Martin’s business community showcases the local culture. As a close-knit community, SMEDA views its local businesses more like family—which may sound trite, but in this community so closely bonded by heritage and culture, many business owners are close friends if not outright related. “Our community is so close that a lot of these business owners, we kind of know each other on a personal level,” Stelly says. “That makes business outreach that much easier.”
As an organization of business professionals, SMEDA sees itself as highly project-focused. Stelly herself, with a background in architecture, has sound experience in project management, plus the marketing and real estate experience necessary for a role in economic development.
Looking long for success
While SMEDA remains more focused on short-term projects, Stelly confirms that the authority does have long-term job-creation goals for the region: “If by 2030 we have created jobs through our efforts and seen real progress with our infrastructure projects, I think we will consider that a success.”
SMEDA boasts numerous examples of this project-focused model. In 2000, the authority identified a 150-acre tract of land in the town of Broussard and was able to develop a highly successful business park. Rather than purchasing the land outright, the authority worked with landowners and sold options to companies. “It was a great exercise as a public/private endeavor,” Stelly says.
The project also exemplifies the close regional relationship between government agencies and the private sector in St. Martin Parish. According to Stelly, the benefits are still coming in: “Since 2009, we have taken in $15 million in ad valorem tax from that one development.” By 2018, the business park had added 1,200 local jobs. Stelly regards this business park – and others like it – as among SMEDA’s proudest achievements, and is now working with landowners and local governments to duplicate this success.
More new projects
With this in mind, SMEDA is bringing in new companies, particularly in the agriculture sector. The authority is now working with an Indian firm to build a $100 million facility to process bagasse, turning this waste product derived from sugarcane processing into ethanol. With this development, hopefully more biofuel investment will take off.
Other future developments include food preparation and storage, a logical idea given St. Martin’s proximity to abundant crawfish ponds as well as soybean and the aforementioned sugarcane. SMEDA is also working to attract metal manufacturing to the region.
Yet despite these developments, St. Martin and Acadiana remain subject to Louisiana’s unusual weather conditions. Major flood damage from a 2016 storm remains a problem three years on, but a $25-million parish-wide drainage project should help limit the effect of future storms. This effort is part of a nationwide $1.2-billion federal watershed development and flooding-mitigation program. “Although it was bad, it’s being fixed,” Stelly reports. “It’ll take a while for it to be fixed for good, but we’re making a lot of good progress.” She dismisses claims of rising extreme weather. “We had a lot of storms, but they weren’t nearly as bad as the news made them out to be.” New dredges and canals are now being dug to accommodate flooding coming from the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Delta.
Diversification to eliminate regional population decline also remains a pressing issue. St. Martin and Acadiana are both rapidly diversifying in the wake of a declining regional oil industry. “The oilfield downturn really hit us hard, not only St. Martin Parish but Louisiana as a whole and Acadiana as a region,” Stelly says. During oil’s heyday, local youth could earn high-paying jobs straight out of High School.
Looking to the workforce
But now, the parish is struggling to keep younger workers from moving out of state. To combat this, Parish schools are partnering with a local community college, South Louisiana Community College (SLCC), to launch a dual enrollment program. High School students enrolled in the program can attend SLCC for one semester and graduate with an Associate’s Degree in a single semester.
With three programs already, and more added every year, this measure and others like it will ensure a steady local, talented workforce for growing businesses. “We’re a family-oriented community, we want to keep our kids as close to home as possible,” Stelly says. “We don’t want them to move off because we don’t have opportunities for them here.” Many locals live in St. Martin but work in Lafayette, and SMEDA intends to change that.
As SMEDA looks to St. Martin’s future, it is excited both about the region’s growing economic opportunities and its ongoing cultural rebirth. With tourism, agriculture and manufacturing poised to expand thanks to regional advantages and state government assistance, the parish and Acadiana as a whole are on the cusp of a bright new future. As they say in the region, laissez les bon temps rouler – let the good times roll.