BY DORIS MARICLE
JENNINGS — Public service and finance are woven into the life fabric of former Jennings Mayor Greg Marcantel.
Marcantel, 59, served as mayor for 14 years and ran for the office of lieutenant governor in 1995. Before that, he worked as Jennings city clerk and finance director. Today, Marcantel continues to work as the city’s financial advisor and accountant, while serving the parish landfill commission and other government entities.
“When I was in high school I used to tell people I was going to run for president, and I really meant it at the time,” Marcantel recently recalled.
His now 88-year-old father, Bernard Marcantel, served 26 years as Jeff Davis Parish district attorney and nine years as a 31st Judicial District Court judge.
Marcantel’s brother, David Marcantel, served on the Jeff Davis Parish School Board for 12 years, while he and his sister, Nancy Tabb Marcantel, were on the Louisiana State Central Committee of the Republican Party. His uncle, Charles deGravelles Jr., was also known as the father of the Republican Party in Louisiana and worked as U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater’s campaign manager.
“Our family has been involved in politics for a long time, so I grew up with that knowledge,” said Marcantel. “I grew up with those influences, so it wasn’t a great stretch for me to get in politics. I guess I just didn’t imagine running for mayor when I did, but I didn’t hate it too much because I ran three times.”
As for his other passion, finance, Marcantel says he has been doing tax planning since the day he was born, which just happened to be Dec. 31.
“I was born at 5 p.m., so dad didn’t have to feed me and he got a (tax) deduction for that year,” Marcantel said. “My brain is much more wired to finances.”
Marcantel said he knew he would become an accountant at age 12, when he made his first stock investment.
“I used to read the finance pages of the Times-Picayune. We had the Times-Picayune delivered to the house every day, and I’d pore over the financial pages,” he said.
“My father thought that I was weird, and I bugged him so much … I had $30 that I wanted to invest. He actually took me out of school one day and brought me to a stockbroker’s office in Lake Charles, and the stockbroker showed me all the stuff and we watched the ticker-tape. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Marcantel’s first investment was $34 in American Research.
“I remember his (stockbroker’s) face just went, oh my goodness, ‘I’ve wasted two hours, and my commission is going to be 52-cents on this sale.’ But he
was very polite and very nice and treated me just like I was a little Rockefeller with my $34,” he said.
That initial investment made money, which resulted in Marcantel convincing his brother and sister to turn their life savings over to him for investment.
“I’ve always been fascinated by finances and that’s the part of government I like most, figuring out ways to use the financial resources of government,” he said.
Former classmate Connie Davis Hebert remembers Marcantel as a “bookworm.”
“He took a lot of bookkeeping classes in high school and was at the top of the class,” Hebert said. “It didn’t surprise me when he ran for mayor, because I thought it sounded like him.”
Marcantel recalls that the city was in a “pretty dire financial status” following the oil bust in the late 1980s.
Sales taxes had dropped over $1 million in just 18 months, the city was running out of money and a quarter of the residents were unemployed, he said.
“We had placed almost all the employees on a 32-hour work week, and City Hall was closed on Fridays,” he said.
The police and fire departments were the only ones continuing to work-full time, he said.
There had been no capital improvements for several years, because the city was conserving as much as possible to operate, Marcantel said.
While recognizing the challenges, Marcantel said he also felt there were opportunities.
“I was very interested in finding out whether or not Jennings could improve its economic situation by promoting tourism as a form of economic development, because it seemed to me that could be the most immediate help in trying to turn the economy around,” he said.
Things became more challenging in late 1988, when then-mayor Jennifer Meyer decided to not seek re-election.
Marcantel said it was Christmas 1988 when he learned Meyer had decided not to seek another term. He said she encouraged him to run for mayor.
After talking the possibility over with his wife, Jean, Marcantel decided to run. He was elected mayor on April 1, 1989, and took office the following July, just as the state’s economy was slowly recovering from the oil bust.
“There were estimates during that period of time that Jeff Davis Parish had unemployment as high as 25 percent, so we had a long way to come back from, but our finances had improved enough that we were able to return employees to 40-hour work weeks within six months after I became mayor,” he said.
Residents, business owners and city officials soon focused their efforts on reviving the downtown area and attracting more tourists. The Jennings Chamber of Commerce and the newly appointed Jennings Industrial Development Board spearheaded the efforts.
Among the first tasks was opening a tourist information center at the Louisiana Oil and Gas Park, just off Interstate 10. That became a reality in January 1989. A live alligator exhibit was added in 1991.
“We went from 2,000 people a year stopping for tourism information to the 36,000 people stopping in the first year,” Marcantel said. “Today, we average close to 45,000 people a year. It’s still working to draw huge numbers of people off the interstate that we hope spend a little time in Jeff Davis Parish.”
Things were also happening in downtown Jennings, where a state facade grant program helped business owners repair their buildings. In less than five years, more than 50 buildings were renovated under the program.
The city also purchased an old department store on Main Street and opened the W.H. Tupper General Store Museum in 1991. The following year the Louisiana Telephone Pioneer Museum was opened next door. Progress continued with the creation of Founder’s Park nearby in 1995.
“So we began to see all kind of things happening on Main Street,” Marcantel said. “Some of it from the private sector, some of it from the government sector,” he said.
For nearly six years, the city saw one development project after another, which sparked more interest and resulted in more visitors.
“I think he did a great job as mayor,” Hebert said. “He was so good at tourism and understanding it. He did so much for the city.”
In 1992, the city was selected as one of six rural tourism success stories in Louisiana, which lead to national recognition as one of three rural tourism success stories in the nation by the National Office of Tourism.
Marcantel became the city’s ambassador, with speaking engagements across the United States.
“We went from having about 40 percent occupancy of our downtown buildings to eventually having about 80 percent occupied,” he said. “We saw the value, which is what this was about, increase. It was about economic development and trying to rekindle the downtown area as a viable economic engine for the city.”
The city purchased the Tupper Museum building for $1 a square foot for $10,000. Today the values on Main Street are closer to $20-$30 a square foot and, in some cases, $60-$70, Marcantel said.
“There’s no question our focus on Main Street as the linchpin on our economic development endeavor was successful,” he said.
Marcantel considers development of the historic Strand Theater — which has now been in existence for almost 20 years — as his crowning achievement. The turn-of-the century, art-deco theater reopened in February 1993 for the premiere of John Sayles’ “Passion Fish,” which was filmed in Lake Arthur and Jennings.
Today more than 50,000 people have attended plays, concerts, comedy shows, pageants and other special events.
When filming of the “Passion Fish” ended in May 1992, Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi promised to return to Louisiana for the premiere. However, there was a catch because both refused to screen the movie in the rundown structure, directing Marcantel to reserve a theater in Lafayette for the premiere.
In typical Marcantel determination, he promised the theater would be renovated in time. A hitch in securing a lease resulted in crews working around the clock to restore the three-story structure.
“When we first walked in, it was just falling apart,” recalls Kayla Gary, who has worked with Marcantel for more than 20 years both for the city and in his private businesses. “But he said we could do it, and we did it. It was one contractor after another waiting at the door. We were working at it down to the wire, but Greg believed we could do it.”
The last fixture was hung just hours before the Hollywood-style premiere began.
It was not just the theater, but everything Marcantel did he gave 100 percent or nothing at all, Gary said.
“His whole life has been about serving,” she said. “He loved getting out there with his trash bags, gloves and suspenders on and pick up trash. I’ve seen him so many times picking up dirty diapers, mopping floors when the toilets ran over at the Strand Theater or popping popcorn for a show.”
Among the other successes of Marcantel’s tenure are the completion of a $6.2 million sewer plant, a $1.9 million water plant upgrade, more than $3 million in street improvements and hundreds of thousands of dollars in park and recreation improvements.