Acadiana's City of the Year: Lake Charles
Explosive Growth Didn't Happen by Accident
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A booming tourism business is the second economic driver, just after the petrochemical industry, and brings in $339 million annually. Four area casinos draw gaming tourists and those who wish to enjoy the top-flight entertainment and restaurants. L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort boasts a 70,000-square-foot casino, more than 1,000 rooms (with extraordinary private villas for the highest rollers), six restaurants and two pools. Top entertainers such as Harry Connick Jr., Tony Bennett and Dionne Warwick headline performances. Delta Downs Racetrack, Casino and Hotel in Vinton appeals to the horsey set, and the Isle of Capri Casino attracts even more gamers.
Ameristar Casino Resort Spa broke ground in July 2012 on its $500 million casino resort. The resort will include a luxury hotel with 700 rooms, 1,600 slot machines, 60 table games, an 18-hole golf course and other top-flight amenities.
Most of this boom was planned for prior to 2005, when Lake Charles’ economy was anchored by the petrochemical industry and bolstered by the Port of Lake Charles. The downtown area was an underused expanse that failed to attract business or residents. Tourism was beginning to come of age. With the catastrophic losses from Hurricane Rita, the city felt a sense of urgency. “Call it the ‘blessing of adversity’ if you want,” says Mayor Roach, “but the lesson learned for Lake Charles was that we couldn’t control what happened to the area, but we could control what we did with it.” City leaders and residents became galvanized to rebuild the city, better than ever.
The pivotal moment came when nationally known and respected community planner Andrés Duany arrived in Lake Charles after Hurricane Rita to manage and direct a series of meetings with city leaders and residents. With his guidance, residents developed a common vision of what the city could be and how it could be achieved. A parish-wide bond issue to accomplish the plan failed. Lake Charles residents later took matters into their own voting booths and approved a bond issue to support the citywide improvements. The hard work of rebuilding the city and making long-needed changes began.
Today, residents point to a revitalized downtown, where a 36-square-block area boasts new sidewalks along the lake, opening the area to walkers, joggers and yogis. Millennium Park, a 19,000-square-foot, $1.2 million children’s playground, opened last January. A large green space is now a festival area and hosts public concerts and fairs. A $5 million transit facility opened in December, and a new courthouse is under construction. The pedestrian-friendly space has state-of-the-art amenities, while welcoming charming horse-drawn carriages that transport visitors along the way.
Charpentier Historic District, adjacent to downtown, is now a chic 40-block area filled with Victorian homes, many on the National Register of Historic Places. The quirky Lake Charles custom of having an odd number of columns on the homes prevails.
“Redeveloping the downtown area gave the community a sense of place,” says Lori Marinovich, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. “Before all these improvements were made, this was an underutilized space. Now, everyone identifies with it. It speaks to the overall quality of life in Lake Charles and instills city pride.”
A good quality of life and a world of business opportunities convinced businessman Rick Richard and his wife, Donna, to return home after living throughout the U.S. for 35 years. The two have spent the past seven years throwing themselves into real estate development and civic endeavors. They have restored some long-neglected and historically important buildings, such as the Calcasieu Marine National Bank and the Cash & Carry building, now both on the National Register of Historic Places and used for special events. The elegant Phoenix Building, the first new building downtown in decades, is another Richard project. The couple has immersed themselves in leadership roles with the Lake Charles Symphony, mentoring programs and other nonprofit endeavors.
“What really brought us back home to Lake Charles were the people,” Richard says. “We always enjoyed the state and saw a lot of good things happening in Lake Charles. In the 1970s, Lake Charles did some really stupid things, like tear down beautiful old department store buildings and theaters. Now the city sees the opportunities it has and is making the most of them. They’re bringing people back to the downtown area to live, shop, entertain. Downtown is now the ‘living room’ of the city. We wanted to be part of all this.”