A new welcome center designed to lure tourists and motorists to visit St. Mary Parish continues to turn into a picture-taking and gawking experience for locals, who are now assessing structural damage to the facility.
The nearly completed $3.8 million Cajun cabin swamp attraction had a massive setback this week when the building began sinking. The center was built on the side of a levee at the Martin Luther King exit just off an elevated portion of U.S. Highway 90, at the first exit for motorists who are traveling west to enter Morgan City.
St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission Director Carrie Stansbury said she has no idea what caused the sinking, saying investigations are continuing while the questions are growing. Stansbury also does business at the Cajun Coast Tourist Commission.
The contractor overseeing the project is Laplace-based Aegis Construction Inc. Washer Hill Lipscomb Cabanis Architects of Baton Rouge designed the project.
Stansbury’s group broke ground on the project in September 2010.
“This is just an anomaly,” she said. “We toured the building last Tuesday, everything seemed fine. But then a painter was working in there Thursday morning, and saw a crack in the sheet rock. He contacted a representative of Aegis, who removed everyone from the building, because he said something didn’t look right.”
She said no one was hurt when the sinking began.
Morgan City Police Glen Blanco said that when he arrived on the scene “you could still hear the building cracking and creaking.”
Stansbury said the whole event for her “has been like losing a member of the family. Just catastrophic.”
Russell Washer, representing the architectural firm on the project, was on the scene Thursday morning. He had no comment, other than calling the setback, “awful, and truly unexpected.”
Mitch Melancon, a supervisor with Aegis, was reached by phone to comment on the project. He turned the call over to someone named Kent at the firm’s Laplace office. Kent refused to identify his last name, and requested that all calls concerning Aegis be made to the firm’s New Orleans-based attorney, Lloyd Shields.
Stansbury said that the building still belongs to Aegis.
“It is still the contractor’s building,” she said. “And it is bonded and insured per state law.”
She said some expenses have been paid toward the building’s construction, but could not release any amounts without full approval from her board.
However, she said the funds to pay for the building are from bonds, a Department of Natural Resources Atchafalaya Basin Program grant, Louisiana Capitol Outlay, sales tax rebates and Cajun Coast Savings.
Early reports from the scene since Thursday indicate the cause of the incident may be that the building’s 75-foot pilings could have given way. The building, 16,000 square feet in size, appears to be sinking in the middle, and photos show water lilies at a level higher than the front door. By mid-afternoon, the building had sunk about 6 feet.
Stansbury said the building was scheduled to be completed July 15. The parking lot was a separate project and was due to be completed by the end of the year.
“It is very heart-wrenching to see what is happening to the building right now,” she said.
State Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin) said the St. Mary Tourist and Convention Authority is the owner of the project.
He added a plan will be created to establish fault for its failures.
“I will advocate that in conjunction with their attorney, we need to devise a plan for indemnification from the party or parties at fault in which the Tourist Commission is made whole including the state dollars in order to be able to return to square one if the building cannot be saved,” Jones said.
“I am hopeful that the construction contract and all associated elements of soil testing and building weight loads by the architectural firm carry appropriate insurance and project bonding,” he added.
Plans for the building included a downstairs facility, a welcome area and an interpretive center.
The upstairs was to include the administrative offices of the tourist commission. Glass walls were to provide visitors a picturesque view of the wetlands.
Stansbury said it is hard to get a handle on the amount of tourists who visit St. Mary Parish on an annual basis.
She said the results of a recent survey showed that day travelers spent an average of five hours in St. Mary Parish.
“Aside from the Shrimp (and Petroleum) Festival, I’d say conservatively, that there are 30,000 to 50,000 tourists visiting St. Mary Parish on an annual basis,” Stansbury said.
She said the visitors come to St. Mary from other parts of the state and also regularly from Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Florida.
The top two international visitors that sight-see in St. Mary Parish are from France and Canada.
There are 1,051 hotel rooms, 11 hotels, 471 campground sites and 17 bed and breakfast rooms located in the parish.
At the height of the oil spill, Stansbury said parish hotels were at a 98 to 99 percent occupancy capacity.
Stansbury said the St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission has been in existence since February 1992 when the Atchafalaya Delta Tourist Commission merged with the Lower Bayou Teche Tourist Commission.
Prior to that, she said the East Atchafalaya Delta Tourist Commission was formed in February 1979. It is also presumed that the Lower Bayou Teche Tourist Commission was formed around the time of the Louisiana World’s Fair, in 1984.
She said the tourist commission operates with two sources of revenue.
“The first source of revenue is a 4 percent occupancy tax on all hotels and motels and campgrounds in St. Mary Parish. This fund is used for our general fund,” she said. “The second source of revenue is an appropriation from the state of Louisiana on the sales tax collected on hotels/motels and campgrounds in St. Mary Parish. Most of this fund is being used to pay the bonds.”