A New Group Is Exploring Positive Approaches To Growth In SWLA
By Brad Goins
A crowd of more than 200 developers, contractors and community leaders recently attended the first meeting of a new group called the Alliance for Positive Growth.
It took four months of planning before the group was ready to gather for the first time. It sounds as if the organization is one that is preparing to make a difference.
One of the objectives at that first meeting was to start working out the details of the group’s goals. Board member Allen Singletary of Investors’ Property Services of Lake Charles said the new group is, to a large degree, still feeling its way. “We’re like a baby. “We’re not even a toddler yet.”
But some broad goals and areas of interest have been mapped out. The APG plans to work with municipalities in Southwest Louisiana to “overcome longstanding obstacles to development and create ordinances in favor of and supporting growth,” said founding member Matt Redd, who is an associate broker at NAI Latter and Blum.
Redd says landowners and contractors frequently encounter city or parish ordinances that conflict with development projects; these, he said, cause delays and increased costs.
“Our goal is to address concerns and craft favorable policies through collaboration between all professionals involved in local development,” said Redd. “We’re here to unite — not fight — to make good things happen in our region.”
The group raised $60,000 from founding members to support its launch. It opened an office in the SEED Center, and hired a director, Jeannie Weise.
Weise, a McNeese State University graduate with a sales and marketing background, will attend municipal meetings in the region. She emphasizes that the Alliance is very much a regional group. In particular, it plans to be proactive in the Greater Calcasieu or Imperial Calcasieu Area: an area that includes five parishes, namely, Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis.
Weise will provide updates to APG’s board members. She’ll keep the group and its board informed on new local ordinances that might affect area growth.
One of APG’s top priorities at present is a membership drive for the group that’s now underway. “Every meeting we have had new attendees,” says Weise. “We want them to know what they’re going to get out of this organization and what it’s going to mean to them.”
The APG plans to use its $200,000 annual budget to employ attorneys and engineers to analyze municipal proposals and advocate for solutions that will have a positive effect on local development.
To sustain the group’s budget, members make five-year pledges at four different levels, which range from $500 to $5,000 a year. Everyone who can meet this requirement is welcome to join the group. Members range from representatives of large corporations to individual entrepreneurs. Explaining the range of participants, Redd says, “positive growth benefits us all — not just those of us involved in real estate and development.”
Singletary emphasizes that APG is “just a grassroots community. We want to promote strong, beneficial growth.”
Making Growth Positive
The group’s first board was chosen with the idea that it would guide the alliance through its launch. A new board will be elected this year. This board will be intended to represent APG’s full membership.
“The response we received at the launch meeting and since then confirms that our effort is needed and that our timing is right,” said Tim Flavin, president of Flavin Realty and another founding member. “Southwest Louisiana is poised for unprecedented growth. But we all need to work together to ensure that this growth is good for our community today and in the long-term.”
Flavin elaborated on the word “positive” in the new group’s title: “We’re a group of citizens who believe that a community is either growing or dying. We want to make sure the growth we’re experiencing is positive.”
Board Members Stay Focused
Flavin said that each member of the board focuses on a specific area relating to development. Flavin’s focus is on one of the most crucial aspects of area infrastructure; he notes that “even in incorporated areas” there are places where there “is no sewer … water. That’s the area I’m concentrating on.”
This is obviously an area in which government spending could have a significant effect on infrastructure. As Flavin says, it’s not just a matter of absent sewage. It’s also a matter of sewage capacity.
“We’re at capacity,” he says. “We have a construction project [near] Home Depot that was turned down because the sewage [at the location] was at capacity.
“We’ve ignored sewage because it’s one of those things that’s not attractive.”
Flavin estimates that at this early stage, the group has formed half a dozen committees devoted to some particular aspect of area growth.
Another basic APG goal is going to revolve around education.
“Most of us felt like there was a need to disseminate good information to the public,” says Singletary.
He hones in on the way in which new projects are often discussed and debated by such governmental bodies as city councils and police juries. “When it comes to projects, the most verbal person can shift the process. People accept their stance as good policy. But they may not know what they’re talking about.”
Singletary says he’s been to government meetings at which a single, vocal opponent to a project has brought along 15 people he’s persuaded to take up his cause. Such opponents, he says, sometimes bring with them “people who don’t even live in the district. You can’t operate in that environment.
“We’re going to monitor every public meeting in the area. Our goal is not to be bullies … What we’re trying to do is be positive in a world that’s gone negative in many ways.
“We’re an agent to assist. We’re not an agent for any other reason.”
APG intends to “message good information out to the people … We want to provide factual information.”
The group, says Singletary, is “going to have a review process [for new projects].” And, as has been mentioned, it will be kept abreast of local government decisions about new projects and new local government ordinances that could affect growth.
“It’s going to be all about accountability,” says Singletary. Part of the group’s effort will be to determine whether government representatives are voting a particular way because they’ve gotten and accessed the facts or simply because they’re acquiescing to a certain number of vocal, angry people in the audience.
“We’re trying to understand [the process of debate about a project],” says Singletary. “Were things not addressed correctly?”
Mindset For Growth
As Singletary sees it, the area economy has been “pretty dormant since Chennault” — since the flood of young men returning from World War II fueled a surge of economic activity at the airport on the edge of town.
Things eventually became so dormant, says Singletary, that “young people had to move away to have a good career.
“Now we have a chance,” with the economic boom, he says, to give the youth good careers at home. “We’re going to be able to retain the talent we need for the future if we can provide employment.” In addition to retaining talent, Singletary thinks, “good employment relieves social ills. Everybody’s participating.”
Singletary says he is “not a big believer” in change for the sake of change. “But if we want to keep our kids close,” some fundamental changes must take place.
One of the barriers to these changes is the loud collective voice of the great number of local residents who tend to think, and sometimes say, “No, I like things just the way they are.” A long period of more or less stagnant growth has left many residents unaware that growth involves change — and a certain number of growing pains.
Growth requires not just new shopping, but also new schools, drainage, sewage and housing. When such new developments are strenuously resisted, growth can be stifled in impractical and unnecessary ways. As an example, Singletary says some people who live in the Lake Charles metro area are sending children to schools in Bell City because they can’t find adequate schooling where they live.
“’Anywhere but here’ — that’s not really acceptable,” says Singletary. “We want to have the right things in the right areas.” When some residents oppose new developments in housing or infrastructure in their areas, Singletary wonders whether they were ever asked, “Well, did you see the benefit?”
He notes that as large urban areas grow, those who moved to a certain location 20 or 30 years ago to get peace and quiet may have to move further out if they want to keep that peace and quiet.
But it will be difficult to change a dominant culture that’s long viewed change with suspicion. “It’s challenging to do things in this area,” says Singletary. “It’s going to be challenging for this area to deal with [the boom].”
Viable — And Positive — Alternatives
Government is bound to be affected by the dominant culture. Singletary says it is the “responsibility [of local government” to fund certain goods and services” that are crucial to growth. In particular, says Flavin, “infrastructure spending is critical to growth.”
Singletary is concerned that the legacy of Gov. Bobby Jindal will make it unlikely that the state can be of much use as a monetary contributor to such spending. Jindal, he says, “raped our budget. It’s almost criminal what he did to Louisiana.” As a result, “We can’t look to the state for help.”
APG will be assisting those who are looking for viable alternatives. “We have to get out there and make things work in a positive way,” says Singletary.
For more information about the new organization, visit www.apgrowth.org or call Weise at 337-602-6788.