Drivers taking the Enterprise exit off of Interstate 10 this weekend were treated to a vision of what could be if the area were revitalized and rejuvenated.
The Nellie Lutcher Memorial Cultural District between S. Division and Broad streets received a temporary makeover beginning Friday night that included beautification with potted plants marking newly painted bicycle lanes and crosswalks; pop-up store fronts where local vendors sold everything from gourmet popcorn to gumbo, handcrafted jewelry and pottery; a cafe area; and outdoor entertainment in the form of a beer garden with live music from local artists.
The brainchild of the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana — in conjunction with the city of Lake Charles and partnered with the Better Block Foundation urban design non-profit of Dallas — the primary objective of the weekend-long event was to inspire neighbors and businesses to reimagine the space along the corridor, in addition to empowering those with strong connections to the area with the tools and knowledge to activate community gathering spaces and businesses in the area.
Jenna Bourque, one of the owners of Blooming Woods Burned Creations, occupied the space in one of the pop-up storefronts on Saturday and said she was invigorated and inspired by the experience.
"This is exactly what we want," Bourque said, referring to the colorful temporary storefronts lining Enterprise Boulevard, where her business was housed for the day. "If this area was actually built up and we were able to have our store here, it would just be amazing."
Alongside Blooming Woods, Del Black and her sister, Gwendelen Dugas, conducted their business, Yepp's Gourmet Popcorn, and were equally thrilled with the turnout and the beautification of the area.
"This area hasn't seen this type of engagement, well, ever," Black said. "I grew up around here and it was really pleasing to see the smiles on people's faces. The music, the food, everything was perfect."
Like Bourque, Black said she, too, would consider opening a storefront in the area to give permanence to the business that she shares with her four sisters.
Sara Judson, CEO of the Community Foundation, was on hand for both the set up Friday evening and for the entrity of events taking place on Saturday. She explained the goal of the Community Foundation is to enhance the quality of life in Southwest Louisiana for now, and for the future.
"One of our strategies is to help the community and the parish to increase economic opportunities along I-10 and so, about a year ago we started learning about a concept called the ‘Better Block,' where you take approximately a block of a street that has opportunity to enhance, not only from an economic standpoint, but from a community building, traffic calming and adding bike paths," she said. "Showing people what it could be like with additional investment, with improvements to street-scape. We worked with the city and a lot of different community partners to decide on this block, because essentially, it is one of the gateways to the city."
In addition to being a gateway, the area was also chosen due to its rich history of art and culture in the area, she said.
"This is a way to build on that."
Lake Charles native John O'Donnell was chosen by the Community Foundation to coordinate the weekend's event. A seasoned veteran with hosting Better Block initiatives across the state, he said he felt the weekend has been a resounding success.
"The question that we keep being asked is ‘When can we do this again,' " O'Donnell said, as he took a moment to relax and listen to the live music playing Saturday evening. "Doing it again, though, is not the point. If we do it again, we want it to be permanent. But the fact that that is the question on everyone's mind, when it can happen again, means that everything was such a success that they want to see all of this really happen."
Making the changes a reality for the area will depend upon the compilation of data that O'Donnell will turn into an "after-action report."
"The whole point of doing this is to create a report that we can give to lawmakers and policy makers and elected officials to show them that these are the environmental blocks and policy obstacles in the way of developing the area as it should be," he said. "That's where the wins are."
The after-action report for this weekend's initiative should be completed within a few months, and that information will be presented to city officials and will also be available to the public.