Submitted Photo
Members of St. Mary Excel work with local officials in the run-up to this weekend's release of the Urban Land Institute study on Berwick and Morgan City development.

Study: Housing, economic diversity needed

Project sought by St. Mary Excel focuses on Morgan City, Berwick

—The Atchafalaya should unite Berwick and Morgan City, not separate them. Morgan City’s downtown could be a cultural and commercial hub centering on Lawrence Park. Berwick should enhance its status as a waterfront venue for festivals and entertainment.
—Both downtowns should have more places for people to live.
—Housing development should focus on the affordable end of the market to convert a portion of a large commuter population into a resident population.
—It’s time to get serious about economic diversification. The Port of Morgan City and other local officials should band together to secure enough money to keep the local waterways dredged to accommodate shipping.
—And local agencies should come together again, this time develop ways to make the region more resilient to dramatic changes resulting from sea-level rise or demographic and economic trends.
Those are among the recommendations in an Urban Land Institute study commissioned by St. Mary Excel. Last year, as a 4-year-old economic downturn dragged on, members of Excel raised $135,000 from local governments and private sources to pay for the study.
The purpose of the study was finding ways to increase “the Morgan City and Berwick population through job creation in diversified businesses, both new and existing. Their growing belief is that area residents must be more strategic in defining their community through a diversified economy,” according to the study.
The Urban Land Institute describes itself as “a global, member-driven organization comprising more than 42,000 real estate and urban development professionals dedicated to advancing the Institute’s mission of providing leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. ...
“Drawing on the community’s resources of the waterways and its strategic location, the ULI panel’s assignment was centered on job creation and an improved quality of life.”
During presentations to local governments, members of Excel said they originally wanted a parishwide study, but Morgan City-Berwick was eventually selected to make the focus more manageable.
A seven-member institute panel composed of urban planning specialists visited the area in September. They toured local sites and facilities and interviewed 100 people about the needs of the area.
Among the key recommendations:
—The past is history. The study says the region has felt the sting of booms and busts because of its ties to the energy industry. “The time has come to learn from the past and support substantive diversification of the local economy. This step will require appointing newer, younger, and more diverse voices on committees who will participate in the decision-making process.”
—The study area is lively. The region has the historic homes, existing industry, the Atchafalaya and nearby swamps to support the tourism industry. But “a Tri-City brand needs to be identified to differentiate the area from the rest of St. Mary Parish and the Gulf Coast.”
—Differentiate downtown Morgan City and Berwick through specialization: “Both communities’ downtown cores should be specialized to complement each other rather than compete.”
Morgan City should specialize in retail and commercial uses, and Berwick should specialize in recreational uses, the study said.
Enhancing residential and commercial uses where appropriate in the Lawrence Park-Freret-Everett-Front Street area could eventually establish downtown as an alternative to shopping day trips to Houma.
Berwick should develop a Main Street initiative, similar to and maybe allied with Morgan City’s.
—The industrial sector has potential, especially because the area’s position makes it a good place to receive and ship cargo from the rest of the country, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America.
“Once a strategy is in place to maintain proper depth of the river, opportunities exist to better support existing businesses and position the area as an innovative maritime support hub situated in a safe harbor.”
One suggestion was to develop a database of vessels and other equipment due for repair and to approach the owners to promote the region as a place to have the work done.
Another suggestion: a seafood co-op to share the cost of ice, marketing and other expenses.
Because business people said dealing with local governments can be confusing, the study suggested an online one-stop shop for developers and people trying to open new businesses.
—Understand the social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. “Some shocks and stressors, such as the changing oil industry, are out of the community’s control. But this can be an opportunity to make the Tri-City region a base for a new economy built around innovation and technology to mitigate these changes. The cost of doing nothing is extremely large.”
One potential source of vulnerability is sea-level rise. The continuing levee project means much of Morgan City and Berwick will be well protected. But the next 10 to 30 years could bring a rise of 1.25 feet to 3.8 feet in area water levels, creating near-term problems with drainage system outfalls, the study said.
In the long term, Lake End Park could become inaccessible as public property, the study said.
The study said closing the levee system is vital. It also recommends exploring tools such as land swaps and transferable development rights to steer development into protected areas while encouraging the restoration of natural habitats in vulnerable areas.
The knowledge gained through projects like the Drainage District 2 and Levee District levee improvements could itself become an exportable resource.
—The state of housing needs greater attention. The study advocates expanding housing opportunities for all economic sectors and enforcing codes as a way of “reinstating neighborhood pride and welcoming infill and housing revitalization, sometimes multifamily, development in both communities.”
The study generally recommends encouraging developing and rehabilitating homes in established neighborhoods, where public utilities and streets already exist, to fill a need for mid- and upper-level housing.
Morgan City and Berwick need more affordable homes and more multifamily units for short-term tenants, such as Coast Guard members who serve two-year hitches here.
The study recommends a demonstration project developing mixed-income multifamily units in the Brownell Homes site.
—A lot can be gained from collaboration and consolidation. The study says local administrations should look for ways to work together to save on purchasing and other needs. And “consolidation of taxing entities whenever and wherever possible should occur.”
“This study will cross over administrations,” Morgan City Mayor Frank “Boo” Grizzaffi said Sunday. “It has a clearly defined path for our communities.
“It is extremely important we act on the suggestions in order for this not to be just another study. Improving quality of life, rebranding our economy and promoting our culture are very obtainable goals.”

Hearing Feb. 21
A public hearing "to discuss use of the report to build our area" is scheduled for 5:30-7 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Welcome Center.
You can find a link to the study on this story at StMaryNow.com.

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