Just Imagine: Connecting casinos to thriving downtown

Published 12:08 pm Saturday, June 4, 2022

 Nicole Miller is the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury program manager and Disaster Housing Recovery & Board chair for the Lake Charles Housing Authority.

Lake Charles attracts many visitors because of its beautiful and thriving modern casinos. Equally appealing is the City’s eclectic and historic downtown, illustrating our unique culture and offering views of our beautiful lake front. What if these two gems could be connected by a bustling mid-city area?

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What if the drive from casino to downtown offered diverse housing stock and unique shopping venues?

Could we create a destination nestled between our eclectic historic downtown and our sleek modern uptown?

The Mid-City Neighborhood Transformation project seeks to implement this dream as one of the 10 catalytic projects developed through the Just Imagine SWLA 50-Year Resilience Master Plan. The project will empower residents of the area surrounding the Prien Lake Mall (from Sallier to Prien) to illustrate in intimate detail the vision for the BEST version of our mid-city. What do schools, retail, housing stock,
and parks look like in this beautifully re-imagined neighborhood? What if we developed high-quality housing and made walkable neighborhoods?

A transformation project such as this requires commitment, champions, cheerleaders, and dollars. Thanks to Hurricanes Laura and Delta, the pandemic and the grand alignment of many stars, the dollars to develop such a project are not just feasible, but truly tangible. The Lake Charles Housing Authority in collaboration with the City of Lake Charles has the opportunity to apply for a Choice Neighborhood
Implementation Grant (CNI). CNI grant awards have soared in 2022 to a maximum award of $50 million per project. Through CNI funding, mid-city can develop housing, services, and supports to create a truly diverse and economically thriving community. This would provide much-needed dollars to align with our long list of project champions and cheerleaders.

A $30.5 million CNI grant awarded in 2011 transformed New Orleans’ last standing concentrated public housing complex. Since the grant award, the Iberville-Tremé neighborhood has seen the development of more than 1,300 diverse housing units, the creation of extensive green space, the meaningful preservation of historic structures, the renovation of key cultural centers, the creation of affordable homeownership opportunities, the redevelopment of a historic school building into artist housing, and
the establishment of viable employment and training opportunities.

In addition, the Iberville public housing complex was revamped and rebranded as Bienville Basin. Bienville Basin includes ground floor retail with a café and yoga studio, as well one-, two- and three-bedroom units with a mix of market rate, public housing and workforce housing units. Project amenities include fitness centers, a computer learning center, an outdoor technology patio, community rooms, a
garden with nutritional education programming, two playgrounds, and off-street gated parking.

Bienville Basin is a lesson and an opportunity for Lake Charles. Over 200 public housing units stand behind the Prien Lake Mall and along Lake Street in our mid-city. Most still have blue roofs and each represents a displaced family. The simplest solution is to build back those 200 units ASAP and bring families home. No doubt, that is an attractive option. But that equates to washing the outside of a car while ignoring the dirt on the floorboards and not even bothering to check the oil. If we just “clean up” our historic housing project, then we’re ignoring that an oil change can take us a lot further. A complete engine overhaul involves looking deeper at what the community needs, addressing economic and educational challenges, and taking the time to make the WHOLE community beautiful and vibrant. With an overhaul of this magnitude, we can bring families back to a home that thrives for many years.

Lake Charles has a golden opportunity to obtain significant funding through a CNI grant, providing a key step toward meaningful economic investment in our mid-city area. With such funding and support at our fingertips, just imagine what our Mid-City Neighborhood Transformation project could become. Just imagine.

Learn more about the Mid-City Neighborhood Transformation project and other projects by visiting www.justimagineswla.com and attending a community 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