West Cal Port: Moving Economic Development Forward into the New Year

By Staff Reports
Southwest Daily News
Sulphur, La. —
If you talk with Lynn Hohensee, director of the West Calcasieu Port, about the growth of economic development in Southwest Louisiana, he immediately will focus on the critical need for a strong
maritime industry sector that historically has served “as the foundation for prosperous growth of nearly all other regional business sectors.”
The 190-acre West Cal Port, as it is locally called, is located 12 miles south of Interstate 10 on La. 27 in Sulphur, and has been an integral part of West Calcasieu’s growth and expansion in recent years.
“All you have to do is go back into our regional history and see the critical transportation role of our indigent waterways to the industrial and commercial growth of our five-parish region,” Hohensee explained.
He cited many examples, including the vibrant commercial and sport fishing industry, the first sulfur mines in Calcasieu Parish, the harvesting of pine and cypress forests in several parishes, the development of an integrated petrochemical industrial community, the expansion of a prosperous hospitality and gaming industry, and last, but not least, the rich farming and agricultural business establishment that grows and produces food for a world market.
“Without readily available shallow and deep water transportation, I shudder to think how much of our regional economic base would have never been developed,” Hohensee said. “But, even though Mother Nature blessed Southwest Louisiana with great waterways, it is up to those of us who benefit from the waterways to make sure they are cared for and properly maintained.”
Fortunately for Southwest Louisiana, that effort is being led by local ports.
“Our corner of the state is blessed with a strong line up of progressive ports,” he explained. “Most folks are well aware of the Port of Lake Charles, which is the nation’s 11th largest port.
“But, we also have the West and East Cameron ports, the Port of Vinton, the Mermentau Port and the West Calcasieu Port,” he added. “For the past two and a half years, all six ports have worked closely together within the Southwest Louisiana Port Network.
Collectively, the ports work very closely with local, state and federal agencies, waterway users and local, state and federal elected officials to prioritize an effective maintenance program for the waterways – primarily the Calcasieu River Waterway and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
“A significant part of this effort is spearheaded through the Calcasieu River Waterway Harbor Safety Committee,” he said. “The committee has proven to provide great ‘common ground’ for the multi-agency/organizational approach to keeping our waterways operational year-round.
Hohensee explained that while the SWLA ports are working well together, they continue to support their own public entity identity.
“Each port really has its own niche,” he said.
“Our strength at the West Cal Port is our location on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, just two miles west of the Calcasieu River Waterway,” Hohensee added.
“While we continue to grow and develop as a services-oriented port, our long-term mission also encompasses a strategy to recruit industrial tenants that have a strategic need for shallow water transportation to bring in feedstock and barge out finished products.
“We anticipate that these clients have the potential to have a tremendous impact on the growth of capital investment, jobs and tax revenue for the parish and the state.”
The most positive impact for the West Cal Port came in 2009 when it successfully completed the maintenance dredging of the port’s west barge basin.
The basin was in bad need of repair prior to 2005, but it was in even more disrepair following Hurricane Rita and then three years later, Hurricane Ike. It took a tremendous team effort by the port’s team to secure a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Transportation and Development’s Port Priority Fund.
These funds, combined with recovery funding by FEMA and the public funding provided by the City of Sulphur and the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, made the improvements possible.
“At that point, the West Cal Port again was able to serve as a critical operations center in Southwest Louisiana for “brown water” maritime transportation ¯ that means shallow-water barging operations,” Hohensee said. “But our port board of commissioners knew more could be done to serve our existing tenants and attract new tenants.”
At that point, Hohensee cited the quality leadership provided to the facility by the port’s board of commissioners – Brent Clement (president), Matt Vincent (vice president), Tim Dougherty (secretary/treasurer), Wilmer Dugas and Dick Kennison.
“So,” he continued, “just three months after we completed the maintenance dredging of the west barge basin, we applied to the Louisiana DOTD for a second Port Priority Funding grant designed to fund the expansion of the basin by some 800 feet to the west – enough space for an additional 30 barges and potentially new barge-supporting businesses.”
DOTD officials in Baton Rouge recognized the value of the project and in March 2010 recommended to the Louisiana Legislature that it approve a $2.3 million grant for the project. Later that spring, the legislature did approve the grant.
While the grant covers 90 percent of the construction costs, the remaining 10 percent, as well as the costs of engineering and permitting, are the responsibility of the port.
“While I would be remiss if I didn’t say we feel the financial pinch of the project’s costs not covered by the grant,” Hohensee said, “we are confident that the expansion of the barge basin will pay great dividends for the port, its tenants and our community.”
Hohensee noted that the West Cal Port team has been working closely to secure the necessary state and federal permits needed to develop the project without negatively impacting the number of acres of wetlands involved.
“We’ve enjoyed great support from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said.
“In fact, a consortium of representatives from those departments – partnering with DOTD officials – have used the West Cal Port barge basin expansion project as “testing project” to collectively identify opportunities to streamline the permitting processes for Port Priority Funding projects,” he added. “As a result, we are in line to move our port project up the DOTD queue by several years.”
As a result of this project, the port will be able to create more than twice as much wetlands acreage as it will take out of commission and divert the badly needed remaining dredge spoils to a federally approved spoils reception area on the port property.
“It is in our long-range strategic plan to eventually transform the spoils reception area into a valued 40-acre site at an elevation above 11 feet that will be perfect for industrial development,” Hohensee explained. “We are expecting to have the permitting and engineering work completed and to go out for competitive bid on the expansion work sometime in the first quarter of 2011.”
Having a quality and expansive barge basin is spurring other new growth opportunities as well as prospective new tenants continue to show interest in the port.
Shortly after the maintenance dredging project was completed, the West Cal Port attracted F. Miller Construction, a division of Houston-based Orion Marine Group. In November 2009, the company moved its field operations to the port which brought dozens of critical jobs to the port.
Since then, F. Miller Construction has leveraged its waterfront construction operations and landed several significant marine construction projects, the least not being the improvements currently being made to the fenders that support the I-210 columns where the roadway spans the Calcasieu River.
“All sheet and ridged steel needed for the project is being delivered to the West Cal Port where teams of F. Miller Construction contract workers are ‘prepping’ the steel prior to transporting it by barge to the worksite,” Hohensee said. “This project alone has created a flurry of activity never seen before at the port.”
While F. Miller Construction is the port’s newest tenant, Devall Enterprises remains the largest and oldest tenant.
“The Devall family has used the West Cal Port for a large portion of its barge transportation facilitation for nearly all of the company’s 50-plus years of existence,” he said.
“Earlier this past year, Devall Enterprises opened its new corporate headquarters on Swisco Road in Sulphur,” he added. “While this physical expansion created an opportunity to relocate Devall Diesel Repair Services from the West Cal Port to the Swisco Road site, the company continues to use the port as its anchor location for its barge operations.
“In addition,” he continued, “Devall Enterprises will be growing its fleet of tugboats in early 2011 and intends to replace the diesel repair business with another family-operated business at the port.”
While Hohensee is excited about the growth and potential for the West Cal Port, he also framed that development with the strategic growth of all six Southwest Louisiana ports.
“All of our ports are public entities that were created by the Louisiana Legislature,” he said. “First and foremost, all of the ports view themselves as economic development “engines” designed to foster and promote economic growth in Southwest Louisiana and recruit businesses and create jobs.”
When port representatives gather for the quarterly SWLA Port Network meetings, much information is exchanged on how each port is doing in relationship to marketing their respective port to the maritime community, working with state and regional economic development professionals, tending to the needs of port tenants and serving as a steward of the public taxpayers’ port investment.
From a marketing standpoint, the SWLA Port Network – with the assistance of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance – attended regional tradeshows in 2010, and the ports have staffed a single booth to promote Southwest Louisiana. Additional tradeshows are being identified for 2011.
Another recent marketing effort highlighted the SWLA Port Network and included a recent case study of the organization in the November/December issue of the Trade & Industry Development Magazine, a business recruitment/economic development publication sent to more than 25,000 site selectors. George Swift, President/CEO of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance played a key role in orchestrating the case study feature article.
The SWLA Port Network also sponsored a 30-second commercial message that aired on cable services throughout the five-parish area from October through December. Sponsorship support was also provided by the SWLA Economic Development Alliance and the Lake Charles River Pilots. The message was produced by the Waterways Council, Inc. of Washington, D.C., and documented the value of inland barge transportation to the nation’s economy and environment.
“But, most basic to all of the SWLA Port Network member ports is a commitment to operating with the highest standard of ethics and in an environmentally sensitive manner,” Hohensee emphasized. “To this end and within that framework, all of the ports working together are making coordinated regional economic development their top priority.”
In regards to the West Cal Port, Hohensee predicts that the port will continue to serve as a catalyst for the expansion of business, commerce and industry along La. 27 from Sulphur southbound into Cameron Parish.