SW La.’s 50-year resilience master plan project in final phase

Published 12:22 pm Sunday, May 22, 2022

Financial planner Danielle Nava is invested in Southwest Louisiana and wants to create an even better region in which her 2-year-old twin daughters can thrive.

“A lot of us continue to choose to live in Southwest Louisiana,” she said. “Collectively we all know the potential of Lake Charles and our area and the great thing about Just Imagine is that it transcends barriers and brings us all together to have input on the future of our community.”

Nava is an ambassador for Just Imagine SWLA, an opportunity spearheaded by the Community Foundation SWLA to infuse hurricane recovery efforts with a comprehensive vision for the broader region.

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Following Hurricanes Laura and Delta in the fall of 2020, a $2.5 million donation from Angela and David Filo to the foundation allowed the creation of Just Imagine SWLA, a 50-year resilience plan for Calcasieu and Cameron parishes — including 10 specific projects that will show the potential of the region and lay out strategies to implement them. Areas of focus within the master plan will be housing, infrastructure, economic development and other quality of life enhancements that will positively impact the region for decades.

Nava is among 30 volunteer ambassadors — along with McDonald Carheel, president of Carheel Consulting, and Eloise Pruitt, an advanced placement psychology teacher at Barbe and Sulphur high schools —who have been gathering input from family, friends, clients, students, church members and others on what they would like to see to improve the community.

“Between online efforts and face-to-face public meetings, that only got us so far,” Jill Galmarini, director of civic initiatives for the Community Foundation SWLA, said. “In order to reach the community and really get in there, we needed our ambassadors to go to their circles of influence and ask these same questions. They’ve been tremendously helpful in finding out what the community wants so that we could determine the 10 projects.”

The project is in the final phase of seeking community feedback, with three public meetings set for June 6-8.

“Fifty years ago, I’m sure there were a lot of people who were thinking about 50 years forward and what that might look like and they made sacrifices to give us the community we have today,” Carheel said. “For me, I felt a sense of responsibility to do the same for our children, our grandchildren. I want to continue to pay it forward.”

Pruitt said being an ambassador has proven to be a teaching opportunity for her students, as well.

“It’s been nice getting the youth voice involved because they are the future and we want them to stay here and build families here and thrive and flourish,” she said. “We also want them to be good stewards of the community.”

Pruitt said feedback from her students included a desire for more green space, parks and more activities — such as a bowling alley in Sulphur, a return of skating rinks and more sidewalks.

Pruitt said her students are hopeful and excited about the part they’re playing in project.

“They see a vision coming for Lake Charles and they’re helping to impart that change,” Pruitt said.

“None of those are novel concepts, they’re just part of the things that make a community great,” Nava said.

“Sustainability also becomes part of our responsibility because not all of the ideas we’re getting are new ideas,” Carheel said. “Fifty years ago they had skating rinks and somewhere across the way we lost sight of that. When did we lose our way? We didn’t stop building subdivisions, why didn’t we think about sidewalks? These young people are interested in the same things we were interested in.”

Nava said the project is more than a proposal.

“This is happening,” she said. “Some of these projects will take 50 years but some of these can be achieved now. I want my girls to have their faces in the sun while walking on a boardwalk, meet their friends at a skating ring, and have all of these nostalgic types of things to do. I want them to be excited about staying here and have a culture around that helps shape who they are, too.”

Galmarini said the 10 projects are coastal risk reduction, waterfront development, mixed-income housing, creating a Nellie Lutcher District, McNeese Resilience District, Chennault and Sowela Resilience District, forming community resilience hubs, providing resilient housing toolkits to builders, establishing a redevelopment authority and strengthening the downtowns of cities across the region.

Galmarini said community resiliency hubs are hurricane-resistant buildings that can serve as a shelter during a storm or a meeting place for things such as yoga classes or club meetings the rest of the year.

She said the resilient housing toolkits are already nearing competition and contain all of the building codes that FEMA recommends. It will be given to the housing authorities, local contractors and Habitat for Humanity.

“These are things the community wants,” Galmarini said. “It is important to Cameron Parish that we have coastal protection. It is important to Calcasieu Parish that Cameron Parish has coastal protection. We’re all tied together.”

Using trees as infrastructure to help with flooding as well as beautification is also planned.

The projects are also structured in such a way that they can be tied to funding streams already available, Galmarini said.

“The projects are packaged to be representative of the community and they’re married with funding streams and along the way, we’re sharing the information with the city and parish government and people at the state level so they understand Southwest Louisiana really cares and wants to make itself resilient and not as vulnerable,” Galmarini said.

“There’s a very different energy about this project,” Carheel said. “People are passionate about the future of their community.”

“We’re in survival mode but now we have this amazing gift where we don’t have to just survive, we can thrive,” Nava said.

The deadline to add your voice to the Just Imagine online survey — justimagineswla.org — is Wednesday, May 25. That will be followed by the last round of public hearings June 6 at Cash & Carry, June 7 at the West Cal Events Center in Sulphur and June 8 at Grand Lake High School.

After those sessions, the projects will move into the feasibility stage and the Community Foundation will work with area leaders to begin implementation.

“Then we’re going to stop just imagining and be like Nike and just do it,” Galmarini said with a laugh.