Cultural districts possess so much value

Published 6:25 pm Thursday, June 2, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh 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.

Nicole Moncrief is founder of the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District Neighbor Alliance and a board member with Visit Lake Charles and Community Foundation Southwest Louisiana.

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As we work to recover from the devastating events of 2020 and 2021, local leaders, residents, philanthropists, and students have come together to create the Just Imagine SWLA 50-year resilience master plan for Calcasieu and Cameron parishes. The initiative highlights 10 specific projects that demonstrate the potential of the region and lay out strategies to implement them. One of the planned projects is centered within the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District.

For those unfamiliar with Nellie Lutcher, she was an internationally known jazz and blues artist born in Lake Charles. Growing up, Nellie lived along Enterprise Boulevard (now named the “Nellie Lutcher Parkway”) and attended New Sunlight Baptist Church. The church is still in existence and located within the district on V.E. Washington Avenue.

The desire to recognize Nellie Lutcher started as a grassroots effort. To solidify this effort, the city of Lake Charles established the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District in 2015 and the state issued an official cultural district designation in 2016. The district is just east of downtown Lake Charles and encompasses a portion of I-10. The area of the district along the I-10 corridor has served as a major artery for Southwest Louisiana since the late 19th century. Enterprise Boulevard and Railroad Avenue once served as the home of retail and food establishments and a vibrant African-American music scene.

It is important for residents to recognize the value cultural districts possess and how investments in them contribute to the overall quality of life within a city. A well thought out, fully funded cultural district should be a well-organized, defined, mixed-use area of a city with a high concentration of cultural facilities serving as anchors of attraction and quality of life amenities. Cultural districts boost revitalization, especially when blighted properties and buildings are repurposed and re-introduced into commerce. Cultural districts attract tourists. However, some of the greatest contributions cultural districts have on a city’s economy include their ability to enhance property values and contribute to creative environments.

The impact of quality investments within the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District could be significant for Lake Charles. In 2019, a team of interested citizens, local government, the arts community, businesses and non-profits, hosted a Better Block Project to demonstrate what a thriving Nellie Lutcher Cultural District could be. Events like this showcase the potential, yet this alone cannot create a thriving cultural district.

Citizens of Southwest Louisiana must be willing to embrace this “diamond in the rough.” Embracing the district also requires investing in the district.

In speaking to a variety of cultural district representatives from around the country, one theme remained constant, and that is the need for locals to invest in cultural districts by way of launching businesses. It is important to recognize that the adorable coffee shop, the trendy clothing boutique, or the chic wine bar you may have walked past or even frequented in cultural districts elsewhere were not owned by the cities in which these businesses were located. Rather, they are products of everyday people who made conscious decisions to invest and that is what the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District needs.

The Nellie Lutcher Cultural District will thrive if those of us who are capable contribute to the District in a more meaningful way. Do not look at how the area has operated for the last 40 years. Instead, just imagine the possibilities that can become a reality if residents are willing to treat the District with the care and vision it deserves. Acadian Ambulance and Empire of the Seed (The Cash and Carry Building) are two examples of transforming blighted buildings into thriving businesses. Quality investments in the area will be of value to current residents and also attract people of all ages eager to enjoy the benefits in a neighborhood close to downtown and I-10.

Can you “Just Imagine” all the possibilities? Learn more about the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District and other projects by visiting and attending a community meeting:

l Monday, June 6, Cash and Carry, Lake Charles, 6-8 p.m.

l Tuesday, June 7, West-Cal Event Center, Sulphur, 6-8 p.m.

l Wednesday, June 8, Grand Lake High School Gym, Grand Lake, 5-7 p.m.