Tourism officials said the cruise stop would bring more tourism to St. James destinations, such as nearby plantations. (Photo of Oak Alley Plantation by the Federal Highway Administration)

Local officials, a state senator, a top aide to Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and a representative from a Connecticut-based cruise company stood on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish last week, as the crowd in attendance waited in anticipation for the passengers aboard the American Heritage paddle wheeler to disembark. 

The event, on Tuesday, July 26, was meant to celebrate American Cruise Lines’ maiden landing in Vacherie, where in a short time, officials said, locals could expect an influx of tourists ready to drink their coffee, join their swamp tours, and visit nearby plantations. 

The River Parishes Tourist Commission, which organized the event, pulled out all the stops. There was a brass band gathered at the site of an old ferry landing, ready to welcome the paddle wheeler’s passengers. There was a tent. There was jambalaya. There were speeches. The only thing missing, it turned out, was the maiden landing. 

“There was confusion because people thought it was going to dock, ” Jay Robichaux, executive director of the Louisiana River Parishes Tourist Commission, told The Lens. “But there was no anger.” 

It was just a temporary delay, though, Robichaux told those in attendance. Cruise ships would begin docking in Vacherie within a few weeks, he said.

But The Lens has learned that the actual timeline will be quite a bit longer — likely closer to six months, at the very earliest. 

That’s because before any cruise ship can land there, either American Cruise Lines or some other entity needs to build a dock so as to prevent damage to the revetment, a reinforcement at the riverbank that is part of the flood control system, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. 

A dock would cost between $600,000 and $1 million, said Linda Holliday, the attorney representing the site’s private landowners, who have entered into a contract with American Cruise Lines allowing the company to access the property.

And before American Cruise Lines, or any other entity, can build a dock there, they would need to apply for a permit from the Corps. Ricky Boyett, a spokesperson for the Corps, told The Lens that no such permit application has been filed yet. 

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would also likely need to sign off on the project, meaning whichever entity plans to build the dock would need to apply for a state permit, Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the DNR, told The Lens. Likewise, the department has not received a permit application for the project, he said. 

American Cruise Lines did not respond to repeated requests for comment in time for this article’s publication. 

“I think that everybody’s just frustrated right now that we seem to be back-tracking rather than going forward,” Holliday told The Lens. 

A years-old vision

The River Parishes Tourist Commission — a public agency funded primarily by hotel occupancy taxes and the “official destination marketing organization” for St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist Parishes —  had been working for years to build a dock at the old ferry landing site in Vacherie. Records obtained by The Lens show that the commission was actively working with the Port of South Louisiana, another political subdivision, to build the dock, which they estimated would cost between $3 and $4 million. 

Under that plan, the Port of South Louisiana would be responsible for building and maintaining the dock and applying for permits, while the Tourist Commission would manage it. 

But those designs fell through, Robichaux told The Lens, due to a lack of funding. The prospect of landing cruise ships in St. James Parish was revived this year, however, when American Cruise Lines contacted Robichaux, expressing interest in docking directly in Vacherie, Robichaux said. The company already offers Mississippi River tours, but conveys passengers by bus to St. James Parish and its surrounding areas. 

Under the plan, ships would land at an old ferry terminal site in Vacherie on the Mississippi River’s west bank. (St. James Parish Assessor’s Office)

Still, Robichuax said last week that he talked to the port about providing some level of funding for a dock on the site. Micah Cormier, a spokesperson for the port, told The Lens that the organization is not directly involved in the current arrangement and has not committed to furnishing any funds for the project. 

The port “has had preliminary discussions with River Parish Tourist Commission and stakeholders about the possibility of partnering up to construct a dock,” read a written statement from Cormier. “We are awaiting more information on passenger counts, economic development, other possible interested cruise operators, generated revenue, etc.,” at which point the port will study the situation and “determine the feasibility of the dock’s construction.”

For his part, Robichaux said the commission is acting merely as the marketing arm for the tours in order to benefit the community. 

At any rate, American Cruise Lines struck a deal with five family groups, organized under the entity Vacherie Landing LLC, the company that owns the batture land at the site. The deal – which would last for three years, with an option to renew for 10, according to Holliday – gave the company access to the land. 

American Cruise Lines has vessels within its fleet that could edge up close to the riverbank in order to load and offload passengers, without the need for a physical docking terminal. 

The deal was a win-win for the community, Carol Waguespack, a member of one of the Vacherie Landing families, told The Lens – not only because it would promote tourism and stimulate the local economy, but also because it would prevent the area from being subject to potential heavy-industrial development. According to a report published by the Cruise Lines International Association, the average passenger, in global terms, spends $100 at each port during a visit. 

“I was very, very active over the years in trying to protect the area from more noxious development of the petrochemical industry and was very successful at it,” she said. “The area’s already polluted.”

There are 11 so-called toxic release inventory sites in St. James Parish, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which refer to facilities that emit potentially harmful toxins. Overall, there are more than 30 industrial sites in the parish.

But it now appears that agreement between the landowners and the cruise company may need to be revised, Holliday said. For one, it’s possible that American Cruise Lines may want to extend the length of the contract, in light of the investment the company may need to spend in order to construct the dock, she said. It’s also possible that the proposed landing location on the property may need to be changed, so that the landowners aren’t cut off from access to the paved road in the area. 

“A meeting has to be set up with the Corps, the [St. James] parish, the tourist commission, American Cruise Lines, myself, and all of those involved, to really look at this closely,” she said. “We were ready to go last month, and now it looks like the soonest we could do anything is six months,” Holliday said. 

The land will be tied up in the interim, per the contract,  Holliday said, meaning it could be sitting idle instead of benefiting the landowners. 

“Any time you tie up property like that, you’re gonna have some kind of loss of opportunity,” she said. 

Having the rug pulled out

Last Tuesday’s event was attended by Robichaux, State Senator Ed Price, St. James Parish President Peter Dufrense and Frank Klipsch, the former mayor of Davenport, Iowa, who now works as the director for city partnerships and special projects at American Cruise Lines. Michael Ince, the director of intergovernmental affairs for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, also attended.*

Robichaux learned on Monday, the day before the event, that there would be no ship landing. But he doesn’t regret moving forward with the rollout event as scheduled, sans the disembarkment. 

“I couldn’t in one day tell all the people there it wasn’t going to work,” he said. 

The event cost somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 in public funds to execute, he said. The announcement had a positive impact on the community, which is still reeling from Hurricane Ida, he said.  

“It was uplifting,” Robichaux said. “It made it feel like we’re moving forward,” even though “at the last minute, the rug was pulled out from under us.”

For Waguespack, the Army Corps’ intercession may complicate what was once a rather straightforward agreement. 

“Any time you bring a government agency into anything, you get layers and layers of ‘have-to’ and ‘should,’” she said. 

For now, her question is: Will there be another rollout ceremony when the ships can actually start docking?

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser attended the July 26 event. He was scheduled to attend, but was unable to make it, sending a member of his staff in his place. (August 8. 2022.)

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...