Jill Galmarini: ‘Time to take the bull by the horns’ with recovery

Published 5:33 am Friday, November 12, 2021

When Jill Galmarini and her family moved to Lake Charles in late 2018, she said it reminded her of her move to Charleston, S.C., in 2005. While both cities had their charms that the locals loved, there was plenty of potential for them to be even better.

The family moved to Lake Charles after her husband, Tom, accepted a job as an assistant professor at McNeese State University. At the time, she was working in the private sector, having spent years working for nonprofits in Charleston to build its tech industry.

Galmarini said Hurricane Laura’s destructive landfall in August 2020 changed her outlook and career path. She wanted to use her experience in Charleston and give something back to Lake Charles.

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Galmarini has been the director of civic initiatives for the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana since June. She is working with the foundation’s consultant team, Urban Design Associates, to draft Just Imagine SWLA, a 50-year resilience master plan for Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.

“This was such a perfect time to do it because there’s not going to be a chance like this again,” she said. “This is the time to take the bull by the horns and make this area what everybody thinks it could be.”

Galmarini is originally from Whitehouse, Ohio, where she lived until she was 25. Her first job was with the American Red Cross in nearby Toledo. Once in Charleston, she worked for the Chamber of Commerce and ran an organization called ThinkTEC, which was tasked with building the city’s tech industry. Boosting tech was a mission that came out of Hurricane Hugo’s 1989 landfall that impacted Charleston and much of the South Carolina coastline. At the time, Charleston’s economy was stagnant and was having trouble keeping residents, despite locals considering it a good place to live.

“Tech was one way to keep people there because there were higher paying jobs for those with a bachelor’s degree,” she said.

The effort eventually paid off, with Charleston growing over the years and seeing its manufacturing industry expand.

“It’s a completely different place now,” she said. “A lot of work was done to develop the whole area so it was not as reliant on tourism or the military. It could grow in a number of different ways.”

Galmarini said a similar effort is being applied to Just Imagine SWLA. Three public meetings are scheduled next week so that residents can share the improvements they would like to see. Officials are seeking feedback on issues such as housing, recreation, retail, natural and cultural resources.

“The sky’s the limit,” she said. “We want to hear from as many people as we can about what it would look like to make this area the best place to live.”

Feedback from the listening workshops will be used to come up with 10 projects that could be implemented in both Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, Galmarini said. The public will then have an opportunity to view and respond to those ideas. The third phase will be exploring the feasibility of those projects to make sure they can withstand future natural disasters and do not harm existing development. A final plan should be ready for public viewing by July 2022 and include strategies for launching the projects and how to pay for them.

Leaving Lake Charles would have been an easy choice after Hurricanes Laura and Delta, Galmarini said. They stayed because of the people they have met and grown close with. She recalled just how willing residents were to help in the days after Hurricane Laura.

“I remember being at a gas station four days after the storm, and everyone was trying to figure out how to use these new gas cans,” she said. “People were helping each other break the cans open so they could get their generators filled up. People were hugging each other and asking how they were doing. It was just so heartwarming to feel that sense of community.”

Galmarini said her family’s home was completely gutted to the studs after the hurricanes. She, Tom, her two children, two dogs and two cats spent the past year living in campers that sat in their driveway while the house was being rebuilt. She considers her family lucky because some neighbors are still fighting with their insurance companies or uncovering structural damage more than a year after the hurricanes.

“We dealt with dishonest contractors and had difficulty with insurance just like everybody else,” Galmarini said. “Fortunately, we were able to get back in and finish the work ourselves.”

Maintaining a sense of normalcy and a positive attitude have been some of the biggest post-hurricane hurdles, Galmarini said.

“It’s a lot mentally and emotionally, but I’m grateful for it because my kids needed to see that,” she said. “It gave us all a new appreciation for what you can be capable of as a person.”

Even with the hardships that the area has endured over the last 15 months, Galmarini remains optimistic that the region will rebound, with the master plan providing the blueprint needed for a positive transformation.

“I really feel like in five years that the landscape of Lake Charles will look completely different,” she said. “This planning effort is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to make sure the future is bright for our children and grandchildren right here in Southwest Louisiana.”