By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – A major change in the way St. Tammany Parish seeks outside businesses to locate here will go into effect in 2018, but outgoing Economic Development Director Brenda Bertus said it won’t change what is expected to be continued business growth on the North Shore.
Bertus has been executive director for the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation (STEDF) for the past 15 years. She said she was already making plans for retirement and decided the coming change was the perfect time to follow through with that.
Starting in 2018, the new organization in the parish leading economic development efforts will be the St. Tammany Parish Development District. STEDF will not be combined with the group, but will be dissolved and essentially continue its work with the new name.
Parish President Pat Brister made an observation two years ago that the parish needed to combine some of its economic development groups since St. Tammany had several that appeared to be overlapping in function and in name.
A study commissioned a year ago by the Northshore Community Foundation looked at those issues as part of the Northshore Visioning Project and recommended combining some of those groups.
They suggested the two parish Chamber groups should consider merging into one, and also suggested groups such as STEDF and the St. Tammany Parish Development District (STPDD) could function as one organization.
Previously, STEDF and STPDD did work together since STEDF was the operational arm of seeking new business for this area, as well as working to maintain existing businesses. STPDD was formed in 1992 to give the parish a political subdivision that could issue bonds for companies needing capital for construction or expansion.
“The two groups had functioned together all these years,” Bertus said. “But it was confusing for businesses looking at locating here. They would see the different groups and not know who to call.”
STEDF and STPDD weren’t the only groups around. There is also the St. Tammany Tourist and Convention Commission, the Northshore Business Council and the Northshore Community Foundation, different groups connected to business development in some way, although the Foundation is more about coordinating philanthropy by those businesses. But all in all, the plethora of business-related organizations has led to confusion for the parish, Brister said.
“There is no doubt that when a business from out-of-state wanted to contact St. Tammany Parish it could be confusing to know who to talk to,” Bertus agreed. “So making this change to get rid of STEDF and operate as STPDD should help that.”
The new organization, set to become operational in 2018, will become the go-to group for new businesses considering the North Shore. It will be led by an 11-member commission, plus a staff similar to the current STEDF setup.
The 2018 commissioners were selected by a nominating committee outlined in STPDD’s enabling legislation. The nominating committee outlined in the legislation includes the current President and Vice President of the STPDD Board of Commissioners; the STPDD Executive Director; the St. Tammany Parish President; and a member of a regional board or commission selected by the St. Tammany Parish President.
The nominated commission members were recommended and approved by the Parish Council in November.
Bertus said she did not want to stay on since she and her husband had been talking about retirement for several years, so the first job of the new commission will be to find an executive director, an act that will commence in January.
Tracy Clanton, operations director at STEDF who has been a top assistant to Bertus for 14 years, has confirmed her interest in applying for that job. Also, Ashley Cangelosi Llewellyn, the current development director with a Masters Degree in Economic Development, has indicated she may apply for the position as well, Bertus said.
All STEDF staff members have been offered jobs with the new group, Bertus added, but it could take up to four months to conclude the search for the new director.
Regardless who that turns out to be, Bertus said the popularity of the North Shore is showing no indication of slowing down. In the past 15 years under the leadership from Bertus there have been 138 North Shore companies locating or expanding here, the population growing from 111,000 to over 250,000 and the median family income rising from $21,870 to $60,605.
Bertus expects the interest for businesses to locate here to continue at a high level, bolstered by the opening last year of the Northshore Technical Community College in the middle of the parish off the Lacombe exit. It is providing concrete evidence for prospective businesses that the work force is trained and ready to go.
“Dr. William Wainwright, the head of the school, has been so professional and helpful with any new businesses looking at St. Tammany,” Bertus said. “He comes to our meetings to talk with companies and answer questions. We are blessed to have the school open here now.”
The school is already starting construction work on Phase II, which will offer more classrooms and job training opportunities.
While the west side of St. Tammany has grown more rapidly in terms of business development in the past three decades, Bertus said she believes Slidell is going to see more of that growth due to several areas that are primed for new companies.
The 400-acre Fremaux Town Center property opened its retail stores over two years ago and would be a great place for a business park, as is the Johnny Smith Business Park off Hwy. 11 near Slidell, which has a 25-acre certified piece of property to go with many other available lots in a growing business park.
One huge tract of land—1,000 acres between Slidell and Lacombe owned by the Salmen-Fritchie family, has been looked at extensively by major corporations, Bertus said and could be subdivided into smaller tracts or “used by the state as a mega-site.”
“There is railroad access on that land, the Slidell Airport is nearby and has been improving its facilities, and our three interstates converging in Slidell have always been a draw for big business. I think you are going to see some big things happen on the east side in years to come,” she said.
Additionally on the east side of the parish, the recent opening of the Dr. T.J. Smith Expressway, running from Airport Road in Slidell to Hwy. 11, is expected to begin development with possible manufacturing or distribution businesses, perhaps similar to Rooms to Go and Associated Wholesale Grocers that both located near Pearl River. The latter two companies have brought over 400 quality jobs to the region.
Bertus said that STEDF currently has “20 projects in the pipeline” that will be taken over by the new STPDD organization.
“There are going to be a lot of opportunities for business already here as we see more of the large companies coming to St. Tammany,” she predicted. “In the early years we would have a business contact us and want to look at some land. We would take them to essentially a cornfield and say, ‘look, there is your property.’ Now we have certified sites with all the time-consuming permitting taken care of, and they are ready to build on.”
The parish currently has nine certified sites available in St. Tammany, more than any other parish in the state.
Bertus, who receives much credit for the success in St. Tammany growth, is preparing to start her years of retirement, but said she will always remember her years with STEDF and the impact she was able to have to help the parish grow in a good way.
“I must say that it was a lot of fun, and especially when we could beat another state to secure a major company that was looking at several sites,” she said. “My dream for St. Tammany is for it to continue growing in the manner we have had—as a planned community, environmentally smart, but with a professional look.”
Bertus’ last day on the job was Dec. 18.
The new St. Tammany Parish Development District Board, as approved by the Parish Council, consists of these parish business leaders:
Michael Gambrell, Slidell
AI Hamauei, Lacombe
Bruce Javery, Slidell
Bill Davis, Slidell
Maura Donahue, Covington
Marty Mayer, Mandeville
Eric Schouest, Mandeville
Rhonda Bagby, Madisonville
Scott Day, Mandeville
Bill Newton, Slidell
Mike Tillman, Bush