LAPLACE — Parish President Jaclyn Hotard’s first year in office was trial by fire with the onset of a global health pandemic paired with a historically active hurricane season. Despite the challenges, Hotard made the most of the year by implementing new quality of life events to bring every piece of the community puzzle together.
Art classes and contests, a drive-thru Trunk-or-Treat, a Coats for Kids Drive and non-traditional recreation opportunities were among many “firsts” for St. John the Baptist Parish this year, building upon a wide-spanning Community Engagement Initiative.
“We know there will be some things that our residents will have to travel for, but just having different things to do can enhance quality of life, whether it is as small as an evening adult art class or a weekly yoga class,” Hotard said. “It’s something to help people feel a sense of community in their parish. Knowing there are things I can participate in with my neighbors or people I didn’t know before builds that sense of community.”
Holiday art contests held for Halloween and Christmas built excitement among kindergarten through third grade students in St. John Parish schools. More than 1,000 entries were submitted and judged by the staff in the Parish Government Complex. Hotard said it was rewarding to see parents visit the Parish Government Complex to see artwork hanging on the walls. It was just as rewarding to see contest winners light up with glee when they received gift baskets filled to the brim with candy and gift cards.
The first St. John Parish Trunk-or-Treat came at the perfect time as the traditional trick-or-treating experience was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hotard plans to repeat this event in the future, along with the Coats for Kids drive that recently collected more than 300 new and gently used coats. The coat drive was something Hotard was inspired to do at a young age after seeing Bruce Katz’ Coats for Kids Drive on network television.
Recreation was another big focus in 2020, according to Hotard. “We wanted to get folks involved with recreation beyond the Big Three – football, baseball and basketball,” Hotard said. “We began incorporating art, drum line and yoga classes. The cheer camp and dance camps and kids and adult art classes were new. Volleyball and our tennis camp were new.”
Many of the new recreational events brought community members to the REGALA Gym for the first time, Hotard said.
St. John Parish also had its first Shred Day in 2020, with another Shred Day event planned for 2021. The Fall 2020 Team Up to Clean Up was a new take on the traditional Clean Sweeps during which Council members identified areas in their districts that needed a bit of TLC.
Entering 2021, Hotard hopes to continue fostering strong communication with the community.
“It’s always been a focus of mine to provide as much information to the public as we possibly can and increase our community involvement. If we don’t hear from the community, we won’t know what the needs are, or what people want to see more and less of,” she said.
Hotard has recently implemented monthly West Shore Wednesdays to keep residents abreast of the progress with the West Shore Levee. Parish administration is working on an improved, community-focused website through which residents will be able to take a photo of a pothole on the street and upload it directly to the online work order system.
St. John Parish has seen great success with the new “text-to” service. Rather than signing up online, residents only have to text SJPWEATHER to 888-777 to sign up for weather alerts.
COVID-19 may have halted some progress, but the parish was able to complete more roadwork than what would have been done in a typical year. Hotard said the parish also made great progress with the demolition of seven hazardous and unsafe structures. She added that the parish hopes to get more aggressive with code enforcement and simplify the rezoning process.
Also on the horizon will be major drainage work on larger canals throughout the parish to reduce flooding from regular rain events. Before being elected parish president, Hotard stated her priorities were flood protection, water system protection, recreation and economic development, and those goals have not changed. One of the next steps in her administration will be to reposition the Ruddock well, which is currently outside the line of protection of the levee alignment.
The Ruddock well project will involve bond money, Hotard said. St. John Parish thankfully has additional bond capacity following a recent bond refinancing that saves the parish approximately $300,000 every year for the next 10 years.
“What refinancing does is allow us to borrow money through bonding without asking the voters for an increase in their taxes,” Hotard said.
Economic development is also a work in progress. Through an agreement with Louisiana Economic Development, St. John Parish is taking advantage of service called Louisiana Development Ready Communities. The end result will be a “roadmap to readiness” that will serve as a guide for future business growth.
There have been many lessons taken from Hotard’s first year in office and 2020 as a whole. COVID-19 has taught her to expect the unexpected, while hurricane season taught her that “it is better to do too much, too soon than too little, too late.”
Most of all, 2020 has taught her to cherish time and life as she continues to serve the residents of St. John the Baptist Parish.