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|Revitalization project eyed for downtown West Monroe|
The West Monroe Community Center's staff and city officials are researching several methods to revitalize downtown West Monroe and the surrounding area.
Denise Calhoun, director of the community center, said the city could be ready to implement a plan within three months, after it decides which method best suits the city's revitalization needs.
"There is a great interest and need to develop and maintain downtown West Monroe," Calhoun said. "That is the heart of West Monroe."
"Trenton Street is where it all began and everything was built out from that area," she said. "We want to maintain and develop that area, the problem is the issues surrounding that area."
Many of the neighborhoods in downtown West Monroe are much older and in a state of decline. While there are a few areas in those neighborhoods that have been renovated and restored, many of the houses are 50 years or older and not in the best of shape.
Calhoun met with Mayor Dave Norris and other officials recently. Their vision now is not only to revitalize downtown West Monroe but the neighborhoods around the area as well.
Calhoun said millions of dollars can be put into revitalization efforts in downtown, but if the surrounding area is lacking, future economic development would be stagnant. There are also some safety concerns within the neighborhoods near downtown that city leaders want to address.
A community meeting will be held from 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, at the community center where residents can discuss challenges and needs within their neighborhoods with city officials. Other meetings will be held once a month to explore similar issues.
"Our (safety) concerns are relatively mild compared to other areas, but there is still that image of decline instead of an image of revitalization and that needs to change in order to change what's happening downtown," Calhoun said. "There has to be a rejuvenation of the entire area. We're talking about rebuilding West Monroe."
Last week, the community center requested that the city be provided with a certified local government status from the state.
She says that move is the first step toward any rejuvenation efforts.
"Basically it's the first step in some other certifications that will open up economic development for the downtown area," she said.
The center is looking at two options and its staff is researching the pros and cons for each method. One option is participating in the national Main Street Program. Other neighboring cities such as Bastrop and Winnsboro have used the Main Street Program to acquire funding for revitalizing the downtowns in those communities.
The other option is to convince the Legislature to designate the city with the downtown development status. That designation would be similar to what Monroe is now doing through its Downtown Economic Development District board. With the downtown development status, the city of West Monroe could offer tax incentives for development in the downtown area.
"We're looking at the Main Street Project to determine if that has enough viable pros to be the next step for us," Calhoun continued. "Or, maybe we can we accomplish our goals through other means, such as being a downtown development district. Would that allow enough tax incentives for us to do what we need without having to go to the trouble of doing the Main Street?"
The community center's staff is in the process of gathering information on what other communities have done to improve their downtown areas to determine which effort would best fit West Monroe's needs.
A downtown district is more about utilizing tax incentives to relocate viable businesses into a city's downtown. That method would do little in improving the communities surrounding West Monroe's downtown, Calhoun said.
"There's no way to come to our downtown area without passing through (these neighborhoods)," she said. "If the last five miles going into downtown don't have a visual appeal, then you are not going to have that draw, and we can't reasonably expect development to take place there."
"So, we're looking at how we can improve our neighborhoods," Calhoun added.
Calhoun said improving the surrounding neighborhoods would be part of the community center's main mission. The center works with community residents to educate young people and to helps adults try to become financially stable and secure.
"If families are working and secure, they can become a viable member of the community, and then that community as a whole will be brought up," she said.
Calhoun believes the Main Street Program would lead to grant funding opportunities for restoration projects in downtown. It is not known, though, if that method would have a significant impact outside of the area it serves in downtown.
"Whatever we do with downtown will enable grant funding to open up to impact the neighborhoods surrounding it," she said. "Whenever you can say, 'We're putting money here and doing things here, and we need help doing these other things,' there's weight in that. No matter what direction we go, it will open doors. So we're looking at which direction would open more doors."
Calhoun said the best-case scenario would be to instill community pride and enthusiasm so more people would want to take it upon themselves to restore their homes and improve their communities. She is aware that many people simply cannot accomplish this due to their financial limitations.
However, she believes if more pride and enthusiasm can be developed within those communities, the city will get the results it wants.
"We're not talking about just coats of paint," Calhoun said. "We're talking about having pride in our neighborhoods, cleaning up our streets and regular maintenance on these homes.
"A house will not be what revitalizes a neighborhood, but if we can put hope in our neighborhoods -- by working with these people and helping them develop a trade and skills -- it won't matter how old a neighborhood is … if there is hope there, then it is beautiful."
Other funding options, Calhoun said, would entail working with local businesses and churches to determine if there was an interest in investing in the communities surrounding them.
"They are all very charitable and giving, and when you invest back in the neighborhoods surrounding your business, then you will see a return on that investment," Calhoun said.
She believes once the city decides on the method it will pursue for its revitalization efforts people will start seeing some restoration work begin probably within 12-18 months.