NEWS BEAT: Mainlining Main Streets

Oak Street

An economic development program that has proven successful in many small Louisiana communities is now being put to use in New Orleans with the aim of revitalizing historic but under-used commercial corridors.
Called the Main Street Program, officials with the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) and Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu’s office awarded grants of $1.5 million to be distributed over five years to four targeted areas in the city. These new Main Street areas are Oak Street, from Carrollton Avenue to the river; St. Claude Avenue, from Elysian Fields Avenue to Press Street; North Rampart Street, from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue; and Oretha C. Haley Boulevard, from Philips Street to the Pontchartrain Expressway.

The grants are designed to help each business district preserve its unique character while fostering economic growth and job creation. The state has run a Main Street program for years, but under its original design it was only for communities with populations of 50,000 or less. Similar programs cropped up on their own in New Orleans, including one on Newton Street in Algiers and along Freret Street, but they never benefited from state funding.

“This is the first time we’re using [the program] in an urban area and it makes sense because New Orleans used to be a number of small towns and cities,” says Landrieu.

The state funds, distributed to nonprofits representing each of the four commercial corridors, will be used to hire directors for the districts and to serve as seed money to attract grants for future programs, says Caitlin Cain, economic development director for the RPC. Representatives from each area will decide the best ways to revitalize their streets, but one of the first orders of business will be a façade improvement initiative that offers matching funds to spruce up buildings. Cain says it’s the sort of first step that can encourage others to get involved.

“They get hope and they want to be a part of the change,” she says, adding that each program’s success relies heavily on volunteer participation.

In January, representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation will conduct a market analysis of each Main Street district, interview business owners and residents in the areas and provide recommendations on how to help revitalize the corridors.

Cain says the New Orleans programs can learn much from the ongoing successes of Main Street programs in Louisiana’s small towns. In June, Natchitoches was selected as one of five winners nationwide for the 2006 Great American Main Street Award for the revitalization and preservation of its historic commercial district. The commercial building vacancy rate in that district, once as high as 65 percent, is now only one percent. – I.M.

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