A brief overview of the ways in which parish officials and City of Leesville officials are addressing the area's need for a plan to accommodate substantial and impending population growth.
Editor's Note: The following is a brief overview of the ways in which parish officials and City of Leesville officials are addressing the area's need for a plan to accommodate substantial and impending population growth as a result of the United States Army's initiative to activate a Battlefield Surveillance Brigade at Fort Polk by 2013.
The clock is ticking.
Imagine the gridlock on U.S. 171 in Leesville last January as hundreds of soldiers with the 4th Brigade 10th Mountain Division were welcomed home in stages from Iraq. As the first month of 2009 drew to a close and many of the soldiers home from war left for block leave with their families, the traffic thinned out. But the traffic relief was short-lived, as those same troops returned to duty, more troops arrived home and the 820 soldiers of the 162nd Infantry Brigade were activated at Fort Polk, with family members, contractors and trainees in tow.
The city of Leesville seems to have reached a saturation point, traffic wise. Pick the right time, and you can zip through town with no problems. Pick the wrong time, such as the Friday preceding a holiday weekend, and you could be stuck for awhile at best, on the wrong end of a traffic accident at worst.
Fast forward to 2013 when the U.S. Army plans to activate still another brigade at Fort Polk, this one more than 2,000 strong by some accounts. Traffic, to say the least, will be just one of the challenges parish and City officials will face with such sudden, significant growth.
The parish's basic infrastructure has become an issue more so than ever before, with roads, water and sewer systems, disaster plans and schools at the top of the list of things that need to be readied and/or improved. Recreational venues as well as shopping and restaurant choices have also arisen as community needs.
In fact, the needs for the area seem too many to list.
But some are making strides to first of all discover the needs and second of all to meet the most pressing needs first.
At least three separate planning projects are underway to help the parish and City make crucial decisions about the future of the area.
First, the Vernon Parish Police Jury and the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX), a statewide planning non-profit, have contracted together in order to create a parish-wide comprehensive plan for future growth and development.
CPEX is charged with providing technical assistance to the parish in both planning, which could take up to 18 months, and implementation of the plan.
Last week, the Jury adopted a resolution to authorize President Jim Tuck and Secretary-Treasurer Rhonda Plummer to execute contracts and activities related to GCR & Associates, a New Orleans company that will provide the jury with the first step toward achieving the master plan.
GCR will gather key economic, demographic, land use and housing data for the parish and integrate the information into an online database.
In addition, GCR will create a Geographic Information System (GIS), of the parish. The GIS an electronic, layered spacial representation of the parish that will allow officials to map and view key features such as utility lines, neighborhood boundaries, demographic data, roads and waterways, land use and more. GCR will also train Jury staff on using the GIS so that later changes can be made and data can be added.
"The purpose of all of this is to provide support for the master plan," said Rebecca Rothenberg, a senior planner with GCR. The GIS will be useful for land use planning and for providing information needed to make decisions on improvements to the infrastructure.
Ultimately, the master plan, while it will benefit the City of Leesville, is primarily focused on the parish as a whole, with an eye toward long-term growth with or without Fort Polk, as well as alternate sources of income, said Plummer.
"This planning effort will assist Vernon Parish in not only making more informed decisions when it comes to development and infrastructure, but also will allow us to take advantage of opportunities," said Tuck.
The second project under way involves the city of Leesville, which is set to receive funds from the Department of Defense/Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA) to hire a growth coordinator to work with local communities as well as the region surrounding Fort Polk, according to Jay Sweat, with OEA in Washington, D.C. The position is for someone with a background in planning, economic development and finance.
"Whenever there's an action at any base, whether it's a closure or realignment or growth ... we look at the impacts on the community," said Sweat. "There's a lot of things we can weigh to determine whether or not DOD can provide financial assistance." DOD also provides technical assistance. The City of Leesville suggested a salary range as well as other operational costs, such as travel and supplies, the majority of which will be funded by OEA. The City must match the grant by at least 10 percent in kind.
The position, which was advertised nationally with a salary of about $80,000, according to Tuck, who is on the selection committee, is set to be filled in December, with a start day of Jan. 1, 2010.
Other members of the selection committee include City of Leesville Mayor Betty Westerchil; Mayor of Anacoco Leroy Cooley; Vernon Parish Superintendent of Schools Jackie Self; President of Fort Polk Progress Mike Reese; and Fort Polk Garrison Commander, Col. Francis Burns.
The third project under way that will impact parish and City planning is the Hazard Mitigation Plan, said Plummer. The intent behind the plan is to address all areas of potential hazards in the parish. The plan will ultimately help the parish discover ideas for mitigating those risks and, in the end, provide a better environment for growth.
As of yet, how the faces of Vernon Parish and the city of Leesville may change in the coming years as the influx of soldiers and their families grows closer remains unclear. But one thing is crystal clear: the need for change has been sounded, the challenge has been taken up and there's no turning back now.
Leesville Daily Leader