Business On The Basin
03/13/2018 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: Business On The Basin [12 Images] Click any image to expand.
The Far-Reaching Vision Of Atchafalaya Swamp BaseBy Scott Brazda
“With the Atchafalaya Swamp Base, as we expand our mission to show even more young people our amazing environment, so many terrific things can happen,” explains Ben Pierce. “If we can expose this natural wonder to more and more young people, there’s a better chance it will be sustained and protected.”
Ben Pierce is passionate. As executive director of Louisiana Swamp Base, Inc., part of his job is to spread that passion to others who can join him in the quest to help Swamp Base realize its potential. “And you know what?” adds Pierce. “This is about way more than a Boy Scout high adventure camp. We get to be ambassadors, not just for the Atchafalaya, but for all of Louisiana. It could mean so much in getting visitors to come to our state, and then, if we do our jobs and truly understand this responsibility….”
“…Those visitors will want to return over and over again.”
In December of 2016, Swamp Base, Inc. —an adventure and conservation program of the Evangeline Council Boy Scouts of America – purchased the legendary McGee’s Landing, itself a Cajun tradition and traveler destination for over 40 years. The purpose? To create a high adventure scouting camp. From that purchase came the for-profit McGee’s Ventures, which will complement the non-profit Swamp Base by providing its first-class tours of the Atchafalaya Swamp to the general public. “Working side-by-side, we will fulfill our mission of getting more people out on the water,” says Pierce.
More people. As with the State figures, Acadiana’s tourism numbers show this is indeed a distinct possibility. Proof: The Louisiana Department of Transportation reports that, on average, between 55,000 and 60,000 vehicles pass the Henderson (Swamp Base) exit each and every day. Transfer those riders and passengers from cars and trucks to boats and canoes, and you’d have a sizable economic and cultural impact to the area.
How large of an economic impact? Try this from the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report on Louisiana: Outdoor recreation generates $12.2 billion in consumer spending annually, 103,000 direct jobs, $3.4 billion in wages and salaries, and $893-billion in state and local tax revenues.
“Now that the Evangeline Area Council has a permanent home at McGee’s Ventures, (formerly Landing),” concurs Ben Berthelot, president & CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, “we have a great opportunity to continue to drive visitors here to experience the largest wetland and swamp in the United States.” Berthelot, of course, is well aware of the costs of such a project, but adds that he’s already seeing some great things occurring. “Although it will take time and funding for them (the Scouts and Swamp Base) to achieve their long-term vision for the facility, our area is already benefitting.”
“400 or so Scout Troops have come through since Swamp Base was created, roughly 3,000 people,” says Pierce. “Just this (2017) summer—over a two-month period – there were 900 Scouts from over the United States, so we’re putting people on the water nearly every day.”
Berthelot agrees. “Through Swamp Base, the Evangeline Area Boy Scouts have opened up the Atchafalaya Basin for Scouts from around the world to experience. When the Scouts come to our area each summer, they are often bringing with them friends and family who get to experience our area as well.”
But the Boy Scouts are only the tip, albeit the well-known tip of the iceberg for making the Atchafalaya Swamp Base a sustainable and, yes, profitable, entity. “Scouting is the anchor, but it’s only 15-to-20 percent of what will truly make Swamp Base an incredibly viable enterprise,” explains Gary McGoffin, Board member of both the Atchafalaya Swamp Base and Evangeline Area Council of the Boy Scouts. “That’s where McGee’s Ventures, and their expertise with swamp and educational tours for the general public – those out-of-state and sometimes international visitors — will come into play and be such a vital partner; in fact, they already are.”
The Louisiana Office of Tourism indicates that in 2016 alone roughly 864,000 visitors took part in something related to nature while in our state: wildlife viewing, photography, fishing or a simple visit to a state park. Call it ecotourism, adventure tourism or wildlife tourism; all come into play when you’re speaking the ‘Atchafalaya Swamp Base’ language. “Airboats, canoes, overnight trips are about to really explode in the Atchafalaya, with a lot of that going on right now,” continues McGoffin. “Adding to our facilities and getting the headquarters up and running will add even more. We hope to get the headquarters ready by 2019.”
A temporary headquarters is on its way, but the when the permanent structure is built by 2019 or 2020? Be ready to be impressed…and educated. “The facility will have a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) component, plus lodging for 200 people,” beams Pierce. “Plus, we’ll have an outfitter for guests to buy gear, a restaurant, dining hall and plenty of first-class rooms for conferences and retreats. Birders, photographers and just the folks who simply want to get out into nature will be adjacent to this magical environment.”
The educational aspect means, among other things, that a school field trip to the Atchafalaya Swamp Base will be more than just a field trip (where, back in my formative years, you got out of class, left the building, walked around a lot and maybe got a trinket to bring home). “The STEAM facility will be a game-changer, and it will be way more than just riding the airboat or looking at the water, and will definitely not be a ‘break’ from learning,” furthers McGoffin. “We are working with educators to (a) design a curriculum that makes the facility an extension of the classroom, a learning laboratory, and then (b) after that curriculum – which will meet state standards for our students – is designed, we’ll create a STEAM facility that follows and complements that curriculum, and not the other way around. Our early projection is that we’ll bring in 10,000-to-20,000 students from all across the state, perhaps across the Gulf Coast and beyond.”
Naturally, the build-out will cost money, $30-million or so, says Pierce, for the core building. That’s where fundraising, donor relations and the state government will prove so valuable. “We’re in legislature, talking to lawmakers and getting them on board,” says McGoffin. “Getting to look at high-end funding prospects to make it happen and, when we do that, we’ve got to show them what the value of Swamp Base is—to the general public and to those with special needs. A facility for every walk of life.”
Partnerships. Collaborations. Relationships. The aforementioned elements will be key; in fact, one is already coming to fruition, a partnership that could take the Atchafalaya Swamp Base into the educational stratosphere. “It’s with the Water Institute in Baton Rouge,” says an excited McGoffin, “and it’s a perfect fit. They have this unmatched knowledge, and we will fill a need for them because McGee’s Ventures and Atchafalaya Swamp Base knows so much about creating this public experience in the water. What comes out of this could be revolutionary.”
It’s also a chance to change things, to turn the tide and invigorate a human populace that, in recent history, has often taken the Atchafalaya Swamp for granted. “I’ve always talked about with what’s been going on in our river-based parts of the country,” begins Pierce, “rivers and lakes and the cities that grow up around them. As these communities grew, there was so much commerce right on those rivers; but as the 20th century happened, we forgot about the waterways, and what people came to think of things like a swamp or a levee was incorrectly defined by Hollywood and media outlets.”
Pierce says 2017 will go down as the ‘learning year,’ or the realization that “…working in a swamp environment day-to-day is a tough business…” which heightens the need to finalize architectural plans and create the new facility on site. Meanwhile, 2018 will be the year “…to push our STEAM initiatives, get them in line with state standards and get more students into the Atchafalaya.” 2018, he chuckles, will hopefully be about this trio: Flora. Fauna. Teachers.
Having this vision of what the Atchafalaya Swamp Base could be—to the Scouts in the smaller pond, but to south Louisiana in the grand scheme of things – and doing what he can to transform this vision from dream to reality, is why Ben Pierce says he gets up every morning. “It’s bigger than just me or Gary or our board. It has a greater meaning to it.”
And that meaning is?
“This union – Swamp Base, the Atchafalaya, McGee’s Ventures – is a great chance to get people to drive over it, but then see it, see how fantastic that watery environment is, and then, get them to think, ‘I’ve got to go out there, and see it, and just be… there.”