Early progress in implementation of Just Imagine SWLA

Published 3:13 pm Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Southwest Louisiana was ravaged by four consecutive federally declared major disasters within a 10-month period in 2020 and 2021. In the face of the devastation, the region emerged with a united resolve to rebuild a stronger, more resilient community. That’s how Just Imagine SWLA was launched.

The regional collaboration brought two parishes, five cities, two towns, federal and state agencies, public authorities, school boards, elected officials, private industries, utility providers, universities and colleges, professional and civic organizations, non-profits and local residents together to develop a shared vision for Southwest Louisiana. That vision balances long-term aspirations for the region — looking 50 years into the future — with the need to demonstrate early investment to convince former and future residents and business to return, said Jill Galmarini, director of civic initiatives for the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana.

Galmarini said Moss Bluff native and Yahoo! co-founder David Filo and his wife, Angela, led the way by donating $2.5 million to the Community Foundation to create a resiliency plan for Calcasieu and Cameron parishes. From there a listening tour — in which more than 2,500 people participated and more than 7,320 comments were received — was launched to set the priorities for a Just Imagine SWLA master plan.

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The now-finalized 350-page plan is organized around five topics — collaborative community planning, resilient housing, a diverse and strong economy, reliable and resilient infrastructure, and unique natural and cultural resources.

These topics align with five of the six FEMA-designated Recovery Support Functions in the Calcasieu Parish Long-Term Recovery Plan, ensuring continuity between the plans, Galmarini told members of the Kiwanis Club of Downtown Lake Charles on Tuesday.

“Under collaborative community planning, those projects include the Nellie Lutcher District and our strong downtowns project,” she said. “There’s a lot of things happening in the Nellie Lutcher District, which is at Broad Street and Enterprise Boulevard heading north to Interstate 10. If you drive in that area right now you will notice a lot of the blight has been taken care of, there’s a lot of buildings that have come down. The Nellie Lutcher Pocket Park next to the fire station is under construction and they’re looking for that to be completed in the fall.”

She said the Southwest Louisiana Leadership Graduate Class of 2022 will also be installing crosswalks in the district that will be reflective of the music and culture of the area.

“There’s a lot of fun things happening right there and I think in the next five years or so we’ll see more and more projects capitalizing off what’s there,” Galmarini said.

Resilient housing is one of the most pressing needs facing the region, she said. The Mid-City Neighborhood Transformation project seeks to expand resilient and affordable housing for the region.

“Our team spent Christmas compiling the grant application for the Department of Housing and Urban Development for that project. It was very intense, but we got it done and got it in by the deadline in early January. We are waiting right now to hear from HUD to see if we are on the short list of approved projects. I have very positive juju that that is going to happen,” she said with a laugh.

She said there are 34 acres in the middle of the city with 238 homes and only 65 people living there.

“HUD wants to see those impacts and then they want to see the investments that are being done in the community and what other organizations are doing to support the city and the housing authority and leveraging as much public-private partnership money as possible to get that done.”

She said another completed project is a digital resilient housing toolkit with practical strategies to help homeowners, builders and organizations build new homes and retrofit existing ones to be stronger and safer against future storms. The toolkit can be downloaded at www.JustImagineSWLA.org.

She said there’s also been some wins for economic development.

“We’re seeing progress on our lakefront with Port Wonder breaking ground, the parking garage being refurbished, Lake Area Adventures is coming and Crying Eagle is going to build their restaurant on the lakefront,” she said. “And on the Westlake side, the Horseshoe Casino has been open now for a few months.”

She said another catalytic project that addresses a diverse and strong economy is the Bayou Greenbelt project, which involves a 23-mile water loop around Lake Charles that will expand recreational access and enhance hidden natural features that are not currently accessible. The project would widen and deepen Kayouche Coulee and connect it to a widened and deepened Contraband Bayou. The project will build trails on public land adjacent to the waterways for walking, running, biking and paddling. It would also serve as a flood mitigation resource.

“Already complete is the McNeese footbridge over Contraband Bayou from the dorms over to the main part of the campus; that’s the first phase of their flood mitigation project,” Galmarini said. “McNeese has been a very supportive partner in all of this, particularly with building their urgent care clinic, the LNG Center for Excellence, and their commitment to build more housing.”

Galmarini said as sea level rise, hurricanes and more frequent and higher-intensity tropical storms are the largest threat to the long-term viability and protection of assets in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.

“If we don’t protect Cameron, Lake Charles won’t survive,” she said. “We met with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in the fall and talked about how the Just Imagine SWLA projects could be funded in their master plan. They were very pleased to see a whole delegation from Southwest Louisiana come together and advocate on behalf of our state.”

Galmarini said $260 million has been secured for marshland restoration and residents have started a “Rock It! Rock It! Rock It” campaign to advocate for the layered coastal approach that includes both structural and naturalized strategies.