Battered by hurricanes and lagging federal aid, Louisiana city is making a comeback
New Orleans Advocate, The (LA)
LAKE CHARLES — In this city's hurricane-battered downtown, two years after storms Laura and Delta, some storefronts remain boarded up, others keep limited hours. The fate of the city's largest office tower, an empty patchwork of boarded-up windows, is still unclear. The sidewalks, for the most part, sit empty.
But despite the reminders of the storms' wrath, progress is happening. On rooftops and cranes, construction workers are busy laying down new roofing on the Baptist and Catholic churches, and restoring the clock tower of the historic city hall.
Downtown Lake Charles was on an upswing before the storms hit and put many of its businesses out of commission. Now, many feel that momentum is finally building again for it to come back.
"The storm threw a monkey wrench in our project, but the machine is still moving forward," Dave Evans, owner of Luna Bar & Grill, said of the collaborative effort among downtown business owners to create a coherent bar, restaurant and shopping district.
Beyond its importance to locals, a vibrant downtown in Louisiana's fifth-largest city would also provide a viable option for visitors from nearby Texas to venture further away from Lake Charles' two casinos.
Across the street from Evans' business, a recently announced project will restore an old Sears location, which previously housed a bar and music venue. The large property, taking up nearly an entire city block, had remained mostly vacant since before the storms.
New Orleans-based Green Coast Enterprises plans to turn the building into a mixed commercial space, serving food on the street level and housing two stories of office space above. The final product may look something like Pythian Market Food Hall in downtown New Orleans, another one of the company's projects.
Looking to diversify its geographic reach, in 2020, the company conducted a census data analysis to identify emerging markets. Lake Charles and its pre-storm growth quickly became a city of interest. And despite the obvious blow the 2020 hurricane delivered to the city's population size and economy, Green Coast CEO Jackie Dadakis continues to see its potential.
"We're very confident that that is temporary," Dadakis said. "You always see that sort of displacement that comes after such a traumatic event, but the reality is there's still jobs, there's still people there. There's still families and communities."
Being based in a city that has seen its share of disastrous weather events, Dadakis said her team is well-versed in rebuilding. "We know what that's like and we know what it takes to bring back a community," she said.
However, the project also shows one of the challenges of redevelopment after a disaster: the displacement of existing businesses and community fixtures.
The owners of Cedar Chest Antiques, an old-fashioned antiques mall located on the ground floor of the building's north side, have been told they'll have to leave by the end of the year.
"It was unexpected," said Ricky Wilson, who has been running the store with his wife for the past 12 years. "We were hoping we'd still have a couple of years, we enjoy it so much."
Marcia Pratt, a longtime customer, had just learned about its closing from another patron. "I'm so sad. It's the only really good antique store we've got," Pratt said. "I'm gonna tear up when I pay him."
But Wilson is taking the early call to retire in stride. The city, he noted, needs the investment into rebuilding. "This is our home and we're glad to see it developing," he said.
The Green Coast project is scheduled to begin construction in May and is expected to open in 2024.
Just one block over, a new housing development is scheduled to break ground in January. HRI Communities, a real estate developer focused on historic neighborhoods in urban areas, is planning to build a 110-unit residential property on an undeveloped plot of land between the city's downtown and a historic residential district to the east.
"Lake Charles clearly needs new housing investment right now and has a demand for apartments — that's a big driver," said Josh Collen, CEO of HRI Communities. "The downtown has a ton of potential."
The project, which will consist of a 70-unit apartment building and a row of townhouses totaling 40 units, is funded with the help of the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program. At the beginning of November, more than two years after the storms, HRI finally received notice that the funds had been committed.
To qualify for the loan program, the project had to meet elevated hurricane resiliency and energy efficiency standards, such as impact-resistant doors and windows, and generators in case of a storm-induced power outage.
"After hurricanes Laura and Delta, we decided we really wanted to be part of the recovery effort," said Collen. Although long-term federal aid took two years to begin to roll in, Collen said his company was confident that help would arrive eventually. "We knew these funds would someday be approved by Congress."
Although approved, long-term federal recovery aid is yet to make its way into the hands of local government, where it could be used for revitalization programs, including in downtown Lake Charles. FEMA reimbursements for repairs on buildings owned by the parish and city, which have a significant footprint downtown, have also been slow to arrive.
With a portion of the funds necessary to finance HRI's project on the books, the first phase is scheduled to break ground in January. In total, the residential development will include 21 market-rate units, 16 units for low-income renters and 73 units of workforce housing, which requires renters to make between 50-80% of the area median income.
The two projects are a point of pride for Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, who has worked for two years to bring federal aid to the city and reinvigorate private investment.
"There was a moment after Hurricane Laura when we really didn't know if a lot of these businesses were coming back or if people were even going to be interested in investing in downtown," Hunter said. "So it's really exciting."
And there are several other projects at varying degrees of completion currently underway.
A new bank building is planned for an empty lot just north of city hall. At the lakefront, the civic center events space, still under renovation, is expected to be fully online again in mid-2023, according to Hunter. Next to it, the city is currently finalizing a request for proposals for a hotel and conference center.
Further north another cluster of projects is in the works.
Local brewery Crying Eagle will be opening a lakefront location there. The Children's Museum of Southwest Louisiana, whose downtown facility was destroyed by Laura, will find a new home in the Port Wonder complex nearby. Lake Area Adventures, a watersports equipment rental company, has teamed up with a local barbecue restaurant to open a new facility featuring a pier, rentals, a venue for live music and food. All are expected to open in spring 2024.
Seeing the progress happening around him, Luna owner Evans is hopeful that downtown is finally making a proper comeback. "We're all at it again," Evans said of the effort to once again create a downtown that can draw locals and visitors alike. "We're all full speed ahead."