Tourism leaders honored at President’s Circle

Published 4:29 pm Tuesday, October 19, 2021

By Marlisa Harding
American Press

Visit Lake Charles unveiled The Presidents’ Circle on Tuesday, a new landscape feature on the grounds of the Welcome Center that honors the three individuals who have led the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau since its start — Bernadette Monlezun Ponton, 1975-1976 executive director; the late Marion “Butch” Fox, 1976-1988 executive director; and Shelly Johnson-Hurley, 1988-2019 executive director.

“These past leaders have all contributed to the growth and success of the tourism industry in our area. It seemed fitting to create a place of honor and a reflection on the grounds to recognize their contributions to Southwest Louisiana,” Kyle Edmiston, Visit Lake Charles president and CEO, said of the feature —which consists of trees and benches dedicated to each of the former executive directors.

The President’s Circle replaced what was formerly a Gator of the Geaux topiary destroyed during Hurricane Laura. When considering alternative uses of the land, commemorating the three former leaders of the organization was a clear choice, Edmiston said.

Johnson-Hurley and Monlezun Ponton expressed sincere thanks for the honor.

“Thank you for this meaningful honor in the spirit of grateful remembering, which is humbly accepted for those who have gone before, are with us and those who will come after us,” Monlezun Ponton said.

“I am very humbled by this honor and would like to thank the board of directors and the staff of Visit Lake Charles for their spirit that continues to drive the bureau to new heights,” Johnson-Hurley said.

From when the CVB was first legislated in 1972 to present, tourism has had a “massive increase in economic impact” on the region, Edmiston said.

“For 2019, the last year for baseline numbers, Southwest Louisiana had over 7.5 million visitors and the economic impact was in excess of $750 million. Tourism now accounts for over 15,000 jobs and is one of the leading industries for the area.”

While much has changed about the landscape of the region and what attracts its visitors, an essential component has never changed.

“The one constant from Bernadette until today is that the people that live in Southwest Louisiana make all the difference in visitation to the area. Attractions, events and other tourism-related businesses may come and go, but the authentic residents of our area are what visitors are drawn to.”

Tuesday’s unveiling was also part of the organization’s grounds and facilities renovations post-Hurricane Laura. With damages totaling over $1.5 million, “the entire inside of the building has been reimagined,” Edmiston said.

With the visitor center reopened for business and staff having returned to their offices this summer, Edmiston said he remains hopeful that Tuesday marks a continued return to “business as usual” in 2022.

The area’s first international conference, the 18th annual World LNG and Gas Series Americas Summit, and the inaugural PGA Korn Ferry Lake Charles Championship are just a few of the attractions set to debut on next year’s tourism scene, he said.