Parish officials tout benefits of Lamar-Dixon Expo Center

Aaron E. Looney

Voters in Ascension Parish will decide during the Nov. 4 general election on a proposed 20-year, 3-mill property tax to fund the purchase, upgrade and operation of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Friday, Parish President Tommy Martinez, Parish Council Chairman Pat Bell asked voters to support the tax proposal, adding that the center is a vital part of the parish and has multiple uses that each benefit the parish as a whole.

However, opposition has also arisen regarding the impact such a tax would have on the parish’s petrochemical industry.

Parish President Tommy Martinez said Friday that while parish government has not utilized the center often since taking over operations in 2005, the community and many other groups and events have used the center for hundreds of events.

“You have all kinds of groups that hold events out there, everything from fishing rodeos and horse events to senior citizen events and high school graduations,” Martinez said. “You also had the parish’s bicentennial celebration there. It’s a good middle point location between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but is also in a good point in the Gulf South that can attract signature events. Where else in this area can you hold such a multitude of events?”

Martinez and Sheriff Jeff Wiley have both said that the center has served as a vital stationing area for law enforcement and military personnel in emergency situations, such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav.

“They’ve used it to stage for disaster events because of its location,” Martinez said. “After Katrina, it housed evacuees, animals, law enforcement, utility personnel and other recovery workers. After Gustav, we used it as a point of distribution for supplies in the parish and to stage for recovery efforts. In that sense, the center’s value is already evident.”

Bell said Friday that he was told by an Entergy official that if Lamar-Dixon would not have been available, power may not have been restored as quickly in the parish and surrounding areas.

“I was told that being able to stage there probably meant that power came back on at least a week earlier than it would have without it,” Bell said.

Planned improvements for the center include climatizing the center’s main arena and 4-H building to make them useable year round and adding portable floors to the main arena to hold different events, among others. Martinez said that the parish would also enhance areas of open land at the center with recreational sites for activities such as walking, skateboarding, fishing, camping and bicycle riding.

According to parish figures, the proposed tax is estimated to bring in about $2.1 million annually.

The parish’s current lease-purchase agreement with the Lamar-Dixon Foundation for the center expires in July 2009. If the tax proposal does not pass, Martinez said, he would not renew the agreement under its current terms.

“If we don’t renew the agreement, the center would revert back to the foundation,” Martinez said.

The parish president said that he has discussed the matter with Mary Lee Dixon, who built the center with her husband, Bill. Martinez said that the Dixons are willing to sell the center to the parish at a cost of $7.5 million. The center recently appraised at $49 million.

“We’d be getting this center at about 16 cents on the dollar,” Martinez said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

In an e-mail obtained by the Weekly Citizen Friday addressed to Ascension employees of Shell’s Geismar facility, General Manager Glenn Bucholtz said that he felt the tax was unfair to his and other plants, which he said pay more than half the parish’s property tax revenues. He also asked recipients of the e-mail to consider voting against the proposition.

“I support our Ascension Parish Government and am sympathetic to the issues facing a growing parish like ours,” Bucholtz wrote in the e-mail. “I do not support the new tax proposition that would create a new tax burden and make us less competitive. I believe it is in the best interest of our plant that this new tax proposition does not pass.”

Martinez, who received Bucholtz’s letter indirectly, said that he was disappointed that Bucholtz did not discuss the matter with him before sending out the e-mail.

“I wish he would have come to me and discussed his concerns,” Martinez said. “Whatever his stance on the issue, I respect that. But I just thought he should have spoken to us first.”

Wiley also said that he wished Bucholtz would have discussed any disagreement with the tax proposal with parish government officials before sending the e-mail.

Bucholtz was not available for comment Friday.

In the e-mail, Bucholtz also said that while he is not opposed to the multi-use facility itself, he is not in favor of instituting a new tax that he said will make his business “less competitive.”

“The new 3-mill property tax is not a good thing for our business,” Bucholtz wrote. “If approved, this new tax will cost the site approximately $190,000 per year in additional taxes. Adding new cost to our business will only make us less competitive in the global market economy.”

“Our industry deserves a break from being taxed one more time,” Bucholtz wrote.

Bucholtz cited data showing that since the parish took over operations of the center and contracted management firm SMG to operate its day-to-day functions, the center has sustained a loss of $2.1 million.

“Our government must manage the cost of services provided to the residents of Ascension Parish,” Bucholtz wrote. “This loss of revenue is not a sustainable mode of operation.

“Because of the shortfall in operating revenue for the center, our petrochemical industry is being asked to cover most of the cost of operating the center via this tax proposition.”

Martinez said Friday that while the center has operated in the negative since the parish and SMG took over operations, losses at the center have lessened during the current year.

SMG officials have told parish government on numerous occasions that they would be able to secure more events, including larger-scale signature events, at the center once its future was solidified and enhancements were made.

“They can’t schedule things because they can’t tell promoters if the center will be open for the long term,” Martinez said. “If we can purchase the center, that will add stability and give SMG a more solid backing when looking to book events.”

Martinez said that while some are opposed to the parish purchasing the center, losing it would affect everyone.

“Nobody’s going to miss Lamar-Dixon until it’s gone,” Martinez said.