Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 8:40 PM
JENNINGS — Economic development in Southwest Louisiana is thriving, and Jeff Davis Parish is poised to take advantage of the good times ahead.
The area is in the midst of tremendous business growth and expansions, which will mean jobs, revenue and visitors for the area, according to Marion "Butch" Fox, executive director of the parish's Economic Development and Tourist Commission.
"There's a lot of opportunities for our area," Fox said. "People are looking at our land and bringing in new businesses, which is exciting for us."
Several large businesses — some with international ties — are looking to Jeff Davis Parish as a potential site to locate.
Fox said she could not discuss specifics of those proposals pending ongoing negotiations.
"We get calls daily from people looking for land and workers," she said.
But economic development is not an overnight accomplishment, she said.
"Economic development is a process that takes time," Fox said. "They come look around, then go back and come back again and we send them more information when they need it."
Fox said the challenge for Jeff Davis Parish has always been how to promote the area and attract businesses while maintaining its own identity.
"We are a rural small parish with lots of agriculture, but I think we have been able to maintain who we are and what we do," she said.
Agriculture has been the main focus of Lacassine's 180-acre agri-industrial park, which has generated a lot of interest from businesses.
The drawing card for the facility has been its infrastructure, which includes two rail spurs, limestone roads, water and utilities, as well as its proximity to the interstate, local ports and airports.
A state economic development marketing team is working with local economic development leaders to create a plan to further market the park and its existing businesses.
The South Louisiana Rail Loading Facility, located in the park, will soon begin its second season of shipping local rice to Mexico.
"That provides a whole other marketing opportunity for our farmers," Fox said.
The high-speed loading facility has the ability to fill 40 railcars in a 10-hour day.
Anyone can use the facility as long as the grain meets quality standards, she said.
The nearby $10 million Louisiana Spirits rum distillery is expected to be open for public tours and tasting by early September.
The facility is already producing clear and spiced rum and aging rum in barrels.
Local molasses and sugar cane are among the key ingredients for the Bayou Rum brand, which hit store shelves and restaurants this summer.
"The rum has been very well received by everybody," Fox said.
Tourism officials are working with Louisiana Spirits to offer group and package tours for the facility, which includes a viewing room, tasting bar and visitors center.
Officials are also working to further develop the parish's new Flyway Byway with a corridor management plan, signs and brochures to get people off the interstate and onto the scenic back trails.
The trail includes canoe and bike paths extending south of Welsh and along Lacassine Bayou.
"We have seen a lot of families biking, canoeing and kayaking using the trail," Fox said.
Officials are also excited about the opportunities that a new Jennings City Hall will bring to the downtown area.
Work began this week on renovating the former Allwest building on North Main Street for the new City Hall complex. The facility will include the mayor's office, finance department, water department and council chambers.
"I am excited about what is happening in downtown Jennings with the new City Hall," Fox said. "This will be an opportunity for us to promote walking tours downtown with the museums, shops and restaurants."
Plans for the new City Hall also include relocating the Zigler Art Museum from its home on Clara Street.
Efforts are also underway to create cultural and historical districts in downtown Jennings and Lake Arthur. The districts would allow shoppers to buy, tax-free, works created by local artists.
Welsh was designated a Cultural and Historic District in 2010.
Existing businesses are also looking to expand, Fox said.
The Jennings-based Leevac Shipyard, which is one of the parish's top five employers, is seeking welders and other employees to help it meet contract obligations through 2020, Fox said.
"That's good for our economy when an existing industry expands like that," she said.
The Zagis cotton spinning plant in Lacassine is also seeking a 50,000-sqaure-foot expansion of its $28 million facility after opening in 2009. The facility makes textile fibers, which are used to make T-shirts, bath towels and other items.
Plans are also underway for a new parish jail and a new Sowela Technical Community College campus in Jennings.