TOP 10 OF 2009: Lamar-Dixon purchase, parish effort among big stories of year

Staff reports
A search crew combs the area around North Pleasant Street in Gonzales during a massive manhunt conducted Aug. 14. Percy James Cage, a person suspected in connection a Baton Rouge multiple homicide, was captured after the search led to a boat shed on the street.

While the sour economy, healthcare reform, Barack Obama’s election to the presidency and escalation of the war and troop levels in the Mideast were the top national stories of the year, local issues in Ascension Parish captured reader attention in The Weekly Citizen.

With the exception of healthcare reform, which burst upon the scene both at home and in the nation’s capital,  Ascension news was about Ascension people and events.

PARISH BUYS LAMAR-DIXON

“It’s a proud day in Ascension Parish,” said Parish President Tommy Martinez, after he signed sale documents in August turning over ownership of Lamar-Dixon Expo Center and its nearly 250 acres of property over to Ascension Parish government from $7.5 million.

In a ceremony at the expo center, state legislators, members  of the parish council, and representatives of Louisiana’s U.S. senators and congressmen, joined in singing praises for the brave new venture.

Also at the signing were emotional expo center builders Bill and Mary Lee Dixon, who turned their $50 million plus facility over to the parish for the bargain basement price.

Now the parish must feel its way forward, as it learns to effectively manage the facility. That will take time, but one thing remains certain, Ascension Parish now owns an exhibition center that is the envy of governing bodies all over the deep south.

NEW ERA OF PLANNING

With the hiring of Winston Associates, the Boulder, Colo. last spring, parish government moved to curtail its helter-skelter growth patterns and develop a comprehensive master plan to manage growing pains through 2030.

Jeff Winston of the firm said the plan would be “basically a visionary plan” in the form of a document providing guidance for the various departments of parish government, complete with maps and goals.

It will include strategies for land use, transportation and infrastructure development, plus guidelines for environmental, parks, and recreation and housing development.

At the first of several meetings where parish residents and leaders contributed input that will lead to the final plan, parish president called the plan a blueprint for the future of the parish. “We want growth,” he said, “but it has to come in an orderly fashion.”

HEALTHCARE TOWN HALL MEETINGS

When U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, the Republican doctor turned congressman from the 6th District, addressed an overflow crowd of around 200 people at Dutchtown High School in August on the subject of health care reform, he was not met with hostility or shouting and shoving as occurred in similar style-meetings around the state and country

Cassidy’s insider take on health-care played well with the crowd, but Cassidy opposed changes of the magnitude sought by the Obama administration, changes which appear to be the way healthcare is moving with the adoption of Senate and House bills on reform.

The issues remain volatile, both locally and on the national front.

$11.5 MILLION JAIL EXPANSION

The Sheriff’s Office in March unveiled a 308-bed expansion to the Parish Jail in Donaldsonville that cost around $11.5 million, which Warden Bobby Webre said was about a million under budget.

The 25,000 square foot facility doubles the capacity of inmates the jail can handle, and addresses a severe overcrowding situation.

“This facility is not here because we want it,” said Sheriff Jeff Wiley, “but because society demands it.”

The expansion follows a traditional dorm style look, allowing inmates to make collect calls within the rooms and partake in video visitation.

DROWNING TRAGEDIES

Within three weeks in May, three separate drowning accidents took the lives of three parish residents.

On May 6, a 19-year-old graduating senior from St. Amant High School drowned while on an outing on the Diversion Canal with a group of friends and students from the school. Jarran Keller’s body was recovered near a popular swimming hole area that kids call “the swinging tree.”

On May 10, Valerie Hodges, a 10-year-old Prairieville girl, apparently drowned in the Amite River while with her father and a younger sibling. The family members were on a boat docked near their home in Prairieville on Amite Acres Road.

On May 19, the Coast Guard recovered the body of Robbie Savoie Jr., 32, of St. Amant, after he was swept into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Grand Isle. A wave swept Savoie and members of his fishing party off a jetty. The other members made it back to shore safely; Savoie’s body was recovered about a mile and half away from where he was last seen.

REJOINED DRAINAGE BOARD

The  bitter breakup of the Parish Drainage Board away from parish administration during Ronnie Hughes’ term as president was negated when the council early last year voted to return control of drainage business back to the president and under the umbrella of the Department of Public Works. Hughes had claimed the president was charged with administering drainage activity, but council members at the time disagreed and created a separate drainage department.

Reuniting the two departments brings the most contentious fight in parish government since creation of the Home Rule Charter full circle, and to a close.

TORNADO STRIKES ST. AMANT

It was, thankfully, a year without hurricanes.

That did not stop what is believed to have been a small tornado from touching down in St. Amant on March 26 and damaging businesses and homes, including that of Sally Landry at 43163 Weber City Road. Her house was moved off its foundation, and the stormy weather destroyed much of it, except the bedroom where she was sleeping. Landry and her dog, Conan, escaped without sustaining any major injuries.

The accompanying severe weather prompted the closure of most schools and caused a number of power outages and downed power lines.

MASSIVE MANHUNT

Authorities conducted a huge search Aug. 14 in Gonzales for a person suspected in connection with a Baton Rouge multiple homicide. Percy James Cage was captured after a house to house search in a boat shed at 231 North Pleasant St., a couple hundred yards from the police and SWAT team staging area in front of The Weekly Citizen offices on Cornerview Street. The following Monday, law enforcement officials received another unusual call to dispose of a suspicious package at the parish courthouse in Gonzales. The package was believed to be military issued explosives, and taken to the parish shooting range for a controlled explosion.

MILLAGE EXTENSION PASSES

Voters in October approved a $100 million millage extension for parish-wide public school improvements. Voters approved extension of the current 15.08 rate, which was approved in October as part of a new construction plan. The millage now extends through 2029.

Superintendent of Schools Donald Songy and Asst. Superintendent Patrice Pujol made numerous presentations around the parish pushing for passage of the proposal. They said the original school board wish list was for $240 million, but the list was pared down in order to keep taxes from going up and risking defeat of the measure.

ALLIGATOR BAYOU

The forced opening of the Alligator Bayou floodgates by Iberville Parish government last spring created havoc with a popular Ascension Parish business, Alligator Bayou Tours, and ruined wildlife habitat sustained when the waters were kept higher levels in Ascension. Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez has since been hit with two lawsuits in 23rd Judicial District Court for his part in allowing the gates to be opened. Under a long-time agreement, Ascension Parish operates the flood control structure even though it is located in Iberville Parish.