Downtown Lake Charles Development A Years-Long Spider Web

LAKE CHARLES, LA (AP) — On paper, the plan to develop downtown Lake Charles doesn't really look like a step-by-step process. It's more of a spider web, where every new project connects to an old one. Future successes can be directly attributed to something that worked well in the past.

         For Lori Marinovich, director of downtown development, the path to highlighting the cultural epicenter of the Lake Area has been years in the making. From the Ryan Streetscape to the annual art walks, Marinovich said finding ways to draw people to downtown is an ongoing process that continues to expand.

         "We really do celebrate our culture in this area. The downtown district is the melting pot of the city," Marinovich said. "We have music. We have fairs and festivals. We have the arts. We just have a lot of culture."

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         The board recently began looking back at improvements over the last few years. Marinovich said that's a way to celebrate the area while evaluating each project and its results. She said the look back was spurred by a community dialogue asking what the city's urban, cultural core will become in order to support the growing population associated with the expanded gaming industry and industrial growth.

         She said the Phoenix Building has been the catalyst for change. The city welcomed a new downtown Transit Center in 2012. Completion of the Ryan streetscape in 2013 also helped revitalize the district. That same year, the city unveiled the new 22,000-square-foot City Court Building.

         Festivals have been a major draw for visitors from outside of the Lake Area. Marinovich described the city as being a place where festivals begin, gain popularity and eventually become local mainstays.

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         "We've also been somewhat of a festival incubator," she said.

         With festivals come performers, who attract fans. That brings a younger generation of residents looking to get involved in their changing city. An example of the new downtown culture can be seen in a recent ordinance setting a vendor permit and associated rules and policies for street performers. Marinovich said her group helped the city's Quality of Life Task Force approach the City Council.

         "They were the ones to put the ideas together and we just helped along the way," she said. "It was really nice to see those future leaders get going and take an interest in the downtown area."

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         The Charlestown Farmer's market held on Saturday mornings on Bilbo Street is another draw for local residents and visitors. Marinovich remembers scouring the countryside with other volunteers, encouraging farmers to participate in the market when it first began in the early 2000s. She describes it now as thriving and something that people of all ages can enjoy.

         The Charlestown Cultural District, which includes a large swath of the downtown area all the way out to the lakefront, was established in 2008. Marinovich said this has played a vital role in the city's cultural development. Through the State Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the district is used to revitalize the community through creating a hub of cultural activity and offering rehabilitation tax credits and sales tax credits for fine art.

         The next step, and probably the most complicated, deals with downtown living accommodations, Marinovich said. In this stage of revitalization, the board begins looking for ways to get residents living in the downtown district to take advantage of the growing number of amenities.

         "All of a sudden, the investment we made in infrastructure, the partnership with the stakeholders to create an exciting street to pull people into downtown to enjoy the fun lifestyle activities, the investments in the parks, and all of the green space — we know another step needs to be taken," she said. "What we're really thrilled to see is the private landowners starting to see there is true value in the downtown district. The key thing to add to that value is permanent residents."

         Several downtown construction projects are planned to accommodate future residents. A private developer plans to turn the former Sears property into a residential and mixed use development. The Noble Building on Pujo Street is being evaluated for similar use. The Berden-Campbell building on Ryan Street is being rehabbed to include additional living and commercial space in the downtown area. There is also another reuse conversion occurring on Iris Street as well as a planned 24-unit townhome development called Charleston Point, in the area.

         Marinovich said the area is going to keep growing and evolving as the area's population and population demographics change. The goal, she said, is to create a vibe in the downtown area that will draw people from all over. And make permanent residents of those that just planned to visit.

         "South Louisiana and the people that have lived here know we enjoy a very distinct lifestyle that attracts a lot of people," Marinovich said. "We're starting to find some success in determining what Lake Charles urban is or what Louisiana urban is. We're not skyscrapers and high-rises. We're pretty much a four-story, very walkable, active, urban community. We're on a journey to continue developing that."

         – by AP/ Reporter Justin B. Phillips with American Press

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