A somewhat drab building on Jefferson Avenue is getting a facelift.
Does that line sound familiar? Leaders in Port Allen sure hope so.
Several new projects on Jefferson Avenue have popped up in the last couple years, and the latest one, located at 856 N. Jefferson Ave. is yet another sign that Port Allen’s historic downtown district might be regaining interest.
856 N. Jefferson Ave. is soon to be leased for retail and rental apartments. The building’s remodel is still in progress, but owner Ray Stumbo is excited about the project and the direction of Jefferson Avenue, which was arguably the busiest street in West Baton Rouge Parish decades ago.
Another example of this trend is right next door to Stumbo’s.
A little more than years ago, Sharmon and Jason Schexnaildre’s remodeled a nearly blighted commercial property on Jefferson Avenue from an old gas station into a gift shop (Southern Girl Designs) and a cabinet shop (Shakewood Custom Cabinets).
Courthouse Street, which is sandwiched between Stumbo and the Schexnaildre’s, is also slated for some improvements. Construction on a multi-use trail, connecting the levee top and the West Baton Rouge Museum with the downtown Court Street area is expected to begin before 2018.
Several other renovations, demolitions and new business ventures have dotted the length of Jefferson Avenue, from Rosedale Road to the Good Oaks subdivision in recent years. Others are in the works.
Yet many storefronts on Jefferson Avenue remain empty. The challenge, according to community development director Rose Roche, is generating an emotional interest in business owners to open up shop in historic downtown Port Allen.
When that happens, Roche hopes the slow drip of development and redevelopment in Port Allen will turn into a stream of new projects.
Between the Port Allen ferry service, courthouse, old City Hall, community center and the Magic Theater, Jefferson Avenue served as a main thoroughfare for business and pleasure in Port Allen at its height.
While the street is still home to the longstanding Bourg’s Drugstore, Holy Family Church, museum and The West Side Journal’s office, to name a few, there is a lot of work left to repopulate.
Scott Gaudin, who serves on the city’s economic development committee, sees now as the city’s time to shine.
“Economic activity is cyclical,” Gaudin said. “When my dad was growing up, North Baton Rouge was the place to be. Things changed and they moved to Southdowns in the early ‘60s. Is there a renewed focus on North Baton Rouge in the last couple years?”
One strategy to return the city to its former glory is to designate the downtown area as a “historical district,” Gaudin said.
The historical designation follows the lead of other small cities, such as New Roads, Opelousas, Hammond and Breaux Bridge, he said.
“It starts there. That area is the most vibrant and it provides the most immediate impact,” he said. “You already have a good nucleus of current assets in place.”
Mix it up
Another tool the city recently employed to attract new development was a redesignated “downtown mixed use” zoning designation, or DMU. Adopted in April, 2016, the new zoning includes commercial and residential zoning down the length of Jefferson Avenue, from Avenue A to Burbridge Street, in addition to historic downtown Port Allen.
“The idea and thought processes – and what a lot of urban cities are doing – is to combine business and residential use of property,” said Port Allen Chief Financial Officer Adrian Genre. “We decided to go out a little further to the north. North Jefferson has the same similarities with mixed businesses.”
Stumbo’s project fit the bill perfectly, Genre said. Such a development would not have been possible without the DMU, he said.
“Our hopes are to one day see something done with the D’Agostino Building downtown (Court Street and Jefferson Avenue),” Genre said. “It’s in the DMU. We would like to see some commercial in the bottom and maybe residential apartments on the top.”
The goal is to let these developments generate “organically,” Gaudin said.
“Hopefully, when the dominos continue to fall over the months and years, you have a revitalized area,” Gaudin said.
Making sure the dominoes continue to fall is where Roche steps in.
Courting different businesses and mediating between different deals can make her job as a community development director feel a little like being a real estate agent.
One of the biggest challenges is changing the attitude of Port Allen, in and outside of the city, Roche said.
“The biggest challenge is that Port Allen has to believe in itself,” she said. “There was no Perkins Rowe and then they built it, and then people came. We have to change our culture and our personality.”
While the city has worked to grow westward (to no avail), Roche has also been working to garner interest in the empty storefronts downtown. A handful of businesses have entertained the idea of opening up shop in downtown Port Allen, such as gyms and coffee shops, but have so far declined.
Admittedly, Roche said she and the economic development committee are farther behind than they would like to be and have not met in any official capacity. First, they need to establish a “framework,” she said.
Up until recently, there was no “vision,” Roche said. “That vision was never put on paper and it’s a feasible vision that can work.”
Photo by Quinn Welsch/The West Side Journal
The D’Agostino Building, located at Jefferson Avenue and Court Street, has long been in the city’s crosshirs for redevelopment.