Rex Caffey, Bogren, Richard C. | 10/24/2006 12:56:43 AM
The votes have been tallied, and the public has spoken – or at least they’ve responded to a survey to say the state of Louisiana should buy Elmer’s Island and keep it relatively primitive.
That’s the gist of a report to be released Tuesday (Dec. 2) by two LSU AgCenter researchers who conducted an Internet survey to find out what people would like to see done with Elmer’s Island, a 1,700-acre parcel of land directly across from the bridge to Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish.
The land, which is one of only three Louisiana beachfronts accessible by car, is on the market. Dr. Rex Caffey and Dr. Krishna Paudel of the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness used a grant from the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program to measure public attitudes regarding Elmer’s Island.
"We saw 96 percent in favor of state purchase – both online and in intercept surveys," Caffey said. "It’s really amazing. It indicates strong, strong public support."
Caffey said the survey results show people want a state park or a wildlife management area. "The preference for development is very low," Caffey stressed.
He said the response is consistent with how the area had been managed in the past. People want improved roads, restroom facilities and a waste station – but not much more.
"People want access with limited restrictions, but they want enforcement of rules and regulations," Caffey said. "Pollution and litter concerns were huge in the survey."
Elmer’s Island contains beachfront and wetlands, including marshes and dunes that provide habitat for fish and birds. It was owned by Jay Elmer, who, for fees, allowed public access to the area for camping, surf fishing, birding, crabbing, beachcombing, swimming and other activities for more than 30 years. It has been closed for more than a year.
As a result of Elmer’s death and the subsequent offering of the property for sale, several legislators introduced a concurrent resolution last spring in the Louisiana House of Representatives that asked the governor and the commissioner of administration to take steps to enable the state to purchase Elmer’s Island. The resolution was approved by both houses of the Louisiana Legislature and was signed by the president of the senate and speaker of the house on May 21.
At the same time, a grassroots movement emerged to push for state ownership of the area.
Caffey and Paudel put a survey on the Internet on May 15 and collected 2,493 responses in less than 12 weeks. The surveyors also conducted 203 face-to-face interviews with visitors to Grand Isle State Park to verify the accuracy of the results. The answers in the interviews were consistent with the online answers, Caffey said.
Most people participating in the survey live two to three hours away – with more than 60 percent of the respondents from the Baton Rouge or New Orleans areas.
Caffey said 87 percent of the respondents were familiar with Elmer’s Island and 75 percent had been there. About one-third of those who visited had been there more than 25 times.
Ninety-six percent of the respondents said they think Elmer’s Island should be in state hands, and 98 percent said they’d visit if it were.
Elmer’s Island is only a few miles from Grand Isle State Park, which averages more than 100,000 visitors a year, Caffey said. But Elmer’s Island is a much larger area.
Caffey offered a conservative estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 people would visit Elmer’s Island each year and generate between $200,000 and $300,000 in fees.
"People, on average, said they’d pay $5 per person per day," Caffey said. "The average maximum was about $10."
Concerning the value of the island, Caffey said he’s calculated a wide range of possibilities using a business property appraisal model.
"Given realistic assumptions about fees and costs, I would say that this range is between $1.9 million and $2.8 million," he said. "This could supplement the original offer of $1 million the state made earlier this year."
Caffey said the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has bonding authority that could be used to purchase the land, but it doesn’t have the authority to charge fees for lands it owns and manages. That situation could be changed by an act of the legislature.
The economist estimated total economic activity would range between $3.7 million and $7.4 million as a result of reopening Elmer’s Island.
Caffey said some people may argue that tourist expenditures once associated with Elmer’s Island are now being spent elsewhere in Louisiana and that the state wouldn’t be losing tourism dollars if it doesn’t purchase the property. Caffey disagrees.
"Clearly, some of that economic activity has been lost," he said. "There are few close substitutes for Elmer’s Island in Louisiana."
Caffey said he believes a minimum of 20 percent of the economic activity he projects as a result of state ownership of Elmer’s Island would be money that people would otherwise spend somewhere else – probably Mississippi or Texas.
"Approximately $750,000 in direct tourism expenditures or $1.5 million in total economic activity is being lost each year that Elmer’s Island remains closed to the public," he said.
Caffey said the survey data are being used by the Division of Administration as it develops a proposal, which will likely be acted on by the outgoing Foster administration or by Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco.
The entire report is available on the Internet at www.agecon.lsu.edu/CNREP/ElmersIsland.pdf.