Just Imagine: Strong downtown shows community’s quality of life

Published 12:34 pm Sunday, May 29, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the third in an 11-part series detailing the final 10 catalytic projects of the 50-year Just Imagine resilience plan. All of the projects are based on input from area residents, high school students, business and nonprofit leaders and elected officials. The final three Community Engagement Sessions in which residents can offer their feedback on the projects will be June 6-8.

Mike Danahay is mayor of Sulphur.

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Many of us have fond memories of a time gone by of the “old” downtown areas of our communities. Having grown up in Sulphur, the experiences of shopping at Serices, Eties, and Burton Hardware in downtown Sulphur are still reminisced about today. At the time, these areas were the economic and social epicenters of our community. It seemed as if all things happened downtown. And so, it was until the explosive growth of suburban America. In the 1960s as urban population began to relocate to the suburbs, so did those businesses that made our downtown districts economically sound. By the 1970s downtown districts, for the most part, became economic ghost towns.  In some municipalities there where many starts and stops to revitalize the downtown areas, but most ended with unsuccessful results.

Beginning in the 1990s, cities and towns began to rediscover the importance of their downtown areas. They recognized the historical aspect of their downtown districts as well as the great economic opportunities for development in their communities. For instance, where else could a new up and coming entrepreneur open a new store front for a minimal cost but in a historical economically deprived downtown area? This interest spurred a different approach to how to revitalize our downtown districts. Municipal governments along with citizen driven groups and civic organizations began to develop downtown revitalization master plans and seek financial revenue streams to support this movement. Some state and federal financial appropriations, though limited, were made available for such efforts. The creation of public and private partnerships has given a new synergy for cultural and business opportunities in our downtown districts.       

Why are strong downtown districts necessary? Simply put, a healthy and vibrant downtown demonstrates the economic health and quality of life in a community. A good example of such a success is downtown Greenville, South Carolina.  Since the 1970s, the City of Greenville has invested in its downtown to make Main Street a destination. Today, the quaint tree-lined street is a place to live, dine, shop, enjoy outdoor spaces and public art, attend cultural and sporting events and easily walk and bike throughout.  By engaging in the process of long-range planning to improve downtown Greenville, the city has created a quality of life that retains residents, promotes tourism and attracts economic opportunity.

The good news, Lake Charles and our neighboring towns have made investments in creating vibrant downtowns.  After Hurricane Rita in 2005, former Mayor Randy Roach and the Lake Charles City Council saw the opportunity to revitalize the downtown area. A master plan was developed and a bond issue was passed by the voters. The construction of pedestrian friendly features such as ascetically pleasing sidewalks, benches, green features, lighting and other amenities attracted new business and population to the area.

The Strong Downtowns catalytic project provides a framework for Lake Charles to continue the revitalization.  It is also a guide for neighboring communities like DeQuincy and Vinton to develop streetscapes and gathering places to initiate a resurgence in their downtown districts.  With Sulphur’s current thriving downtown businesses, we are positioned to capitalize on the concepts of Strong Downtowns. By incorporating strategies like adding more trees and greenery, enhancing walkability, and welcoming amenities like outdoor dining, our downtown districts will continue to pay dividends back to the community.

Strong Downtowns is one of ten catalytic projects in the Just Imagine SWLA 50-Year Resilience Master Plan.  In Sulphur we recognize and invite the effort for the creation and implementation of a comprehensive master plan for creating a strong downtown in our city.  Learn more about Strong Downtowns and the other projects by visiting www.justimagineswla.org and by attending a public meeting:

Monday, June 6, Cash and Carry, Lake Charles, 6-8PM

Tuesday, June 7, West-Cal Event Center, Sulphur, 6-8PM

Wednesday, June 8, Grand Lake High School Gym, Grand Lake, 5-7PM