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At bottom of Louisiana, 1 store keeps town alive

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LEEVILLE, La. (AP) - Across Louisiana Highway 1 from Griffin's Marina and Ice in Leeville, a bronze-colored historical marker describes the citrus grove that once stood there. Today, there are no trees of any kind nearby. Don Griffin's one-stop-shop is mostly surrounded by water, save for the highway and a sliver of solid ground on either side.

Despite his increasingly precarious site, Griffin has no plans to move his convenience store, gas station, restaurant, bait shop, marina and ice plant.

Griffin's Marina and Ice has swelled from $1 million annually to nearly $3 million over the last decade as Leeville saw what was perhaps the most devastating string of natural and man-made disasters in the state's history.

That tenacity earned Griffin the Lafourche Chamber of Commerce's Business Person of the Year Award in 2013.

"As time has taken its toll on Leeville and there have been fewer and fewer businesses, Don has really stepped up and helped that area, not only historically but culturally," Chamber Vice President Archie Chiasson said before the award was presented in December. "Griffin's has really become more than just a store. It's helping to hold that community together."

On a recent Wednesday, Griffin's buzzed with business. The parking lot remained full well after the noon lunch rush even as establishments nearby seemed all but desolate in the lows of the sport-fishing offseason. A diverse group of grease-covered oil workers, long-bearded fishermen and oil company employees streamed through the wood-sided shop like a revolving door.

Griffin, an offshore oilfield worker turned business owner along with his brother, Ben, is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the financial future of the fishing and shrimping town that has shrunk from hundreds of residents to what Griffin estimates to be about 50.

"Leeville, for such a small place, contributes tremendously to the state economy," Griffin said. "We are in the top 50 ports in the nation for seafood production. This is what makes Louisiana the sportsman's paradise, I mean, people don't come here to sit on the beach - this is all about fishing."

When Griffin's father, Nolte Griffin, bought the store in 1976, it was just an open-air Exxon service station.

Don Griffin resisted quitting his high-paying offshore job for nearly six months until he "eventually saw we could make a living."

Since then, he's added a restaurant, bait shop, convenience store and bulk seafood facility.

"We keep this business modern," Griffin said. "We were probably the first convenience store around here. The first place you could get food, bait and fishing stuff in the same place."

He converted what was once an ice delivery service into an ice plant that can pump bulk ice directly into the hulls of shrimp boats while they're being gassed up at the dock. The ice storage freezer now serves as a warehouse for frozen seafood that comes off the Gulf.

As other Leeville businesses have folded and boat sheds have closed up, Don Griffin bought them out. His property now spans nearly a quarter-mile stretch of the highway.

Just across from Griffin's, the concrete soars over the encroaching seawater, carrying Louisiana Highway 1 on to Grand Isle and Port Fourchon, the hub of the multi-billion dollar offshore oil industry.

The original road where Griffin's sits once stretched south on land that has largely vanished. It's being turned into a boat launch.

"Recreational fishing has such a huge economic impact," Griffin said. "People come here to spend money."

The remaining land-based part of the highway is soon to be replaced by more elevated road. Griffin's proximity to that road is key for the business, although he said he hopes the state scraps the project in favor of elevating the old highway.

"Whenever you have traffic you have economic growth," he said. "Once they raise that up, everything below is cut off. It would be much more economical to come in and elevate this road a few feet."

With oil industry trade groups urging completion of the elevated road, it seems increasingly a reality. Griffin said he's been promised there will be an off-ramp at Leeville. But when he rebuilt after Hurricane Gustav and an ensuing fire destroyed the old store, he rebuilt 1,500 square feet smaller and 13 feet higher than before.

After rebuilding from hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and weathering the 2010 BP oil spill, which Griffin said decimated the demand for his services, Griffin's now faces the prospect of being the sole attraction on a slip of land visited only by shrimpers and hardcore fisherman.

Vendors have been frequenting the town less, Griffin said, and wind insurance tripled when he put the store on stilts. But the 60-year-old entrepreneur, who said he leans on his brother for optimism, is not jaded.

"Sometimes you get discouraged, but we just kept getting after it and we've made a good living," he said. "But you know, it's not really for me. It's a way of life, what makes Louisiana so great - New Orleans so great - is the seafood. We're here to keep the bait shop open, the motel open, the restaurant. It helps take care of all of us."

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Information from: Daily Comet, http://www.dailycomet.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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