Acadiana's City of the Year: Lake Charles
Explosive Growth Didn't Happen by Accident
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Residents also cite a safe environment as a draw for businesses and families alike. The city’s crime rate is low, with six murders in 2011 and six for 2012 by December. The public school system is the fifth-largest in Louisiana, and although it is good, locals agree that it could use improvement. There are two new charter schools and a few private and parochial schools.
McNeese State University, with an enrollment of nearly 9,000, recently announced a meat-processing program that will enhance agriculture in this part of the state, thus helping diversify the economy even more. Today, the Port of Lake Charles is more robust than ever, the 14th-largest port in America.
One area of concern among some locals is the environmental impact of such a prominent petrochemical industry. Last year the Sierra Club filed a formal protest to the U.S. Department of Energy challenging the proposal to export billions of cubic feet of domestic natural gas from a facility in Cameron Parish. The Sierra Club’s protest challenges the natural gas companies’ efforts to secure liquefied natural gas without acknowledging its damaging effects. Likewise, the club’s Beyond Coal Team has protested the new coal-fired power plant being built and cites Leucadia’s petroleum coke synthetic gas plant in Lake Charles.
But most residents accept the petrochemical industry as part of life in Lake Charles. “I’ve lived here most of my life,” says a third-generation local, “and it is very apparent that the air and water quality is better than it was 40 years ago. The oil companies have very stringent regulations today, and I do think the environment is better than when I was a child.”
Longtime residents joke that “if you’re bored in Southwest Louisiana, it’s your own damn fault.” In the course of one calendar year, there are more than 75 festivals held in the Lake Charles area, ranging from the down-home Iowa (pronounced I-Oh-Way) Rabbit Festival, where festival-goers sample rabbit prepared myriad ways and dance in the street to Cajun music to the very sophisticated Rouge et Blanc Food and Wine Festival. Mardi Gras festivities boast more than 60 carnival krewes. The town’s Mardi Gras Museum claims to have the largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the world on display. The Lake Charles Symphony, now in its 55th season, presents four performances a year, attracting nationally known performers. The Lake Charles Civic Ballet is equally prominent. Community support for both is high. On a recent night when the ballet was almost a sell-out, B.B. King was performing at a concert, the Louisiana Swashbucklers (a professional indoor football team) had its opening game and the McNeese Banners Series was hosting an event. “That night was a true testament to the cultural diversity of Southwest Louisiana,” says Kelley Saucier of the city’s ballet. “Few preprofessional dance companies in the country could have accomplished what ours did.”
Lake Charles is also the youth sports capital of Louisiana, attracting a large number of tournaments throughout the year to the city’s state-of-the-art athletic facilities. The nearby aquatic center in Sulphur, a stone’s throw from Lake Charles, brings in state and regional swim meets. The area has seven golf courses, including the pristine Audubon Golf Trail course at Gray Plantation.
One intangible that helps attract visitors to this part of the state is its authentic culture. “We locals guard that closely,” says Megan Hartman, senior marketing manager of the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We want the visitor to drive the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail and to see our four wildlife refuges and two migratory flyways for exotic birds or stop on the side of the road and go crabbing. Here, tourists can see how people and nature can live together peacefully.”
After a day with nature, a visitor can visit any of the stops along the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail – located in upscale restaurants, mom-and-pop shops and gas stations – to sample the local delicacy, boudin. The yummy sausage is traditionally bought by the pound and eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time in between. It’s a multi-million-dollar business for local outlets.
City leaders look forward to even more development. To ensure this, they have instituted mentoring programs with proven leaders such as Richard to work with young entrepreneurs. The Southwest Louisiana Economic Development office is working with other petrochemical businesses considering locating or expanding into the area, as well as other industries.