Downtown Shreveport Prosperity: A Work in Progress
For many years, downtown Shreveport has been anything but inviting. Dilapidated, vacant buildings sat on every street corner, driving around to find parking was a hassle, and the atmosphere of crime, bars and casinos had very little appeal to many Shreveport citizens. However, recent developments indicate that big changes are in store for downtown Shreveport and promise to transform the area into not only a beautiful, but also welcoming place.
“We had a lot of vacant buildings downtown; we didn’t have much on the horizon in terms of development. We had very little foot traffic and it was just not the downtown that people wanted.”
The Downtown Development Authority (DDA), a government organization that exists to represent and develop downtown, has been working diligently to restore this area since 1978. In 2011, they renewed efforts to create a welcoming community downtown, through new residential, commercial and artistic opportunities. After many years of working behind the scenes, the DDA, along with numerous developers, businesses and individuals, are seeing growth and success in downtown.
When Liz Swaine took the position of executive director of the DDA six years ago, downtown Shreveport had very little to offer.
“We had a lot of vacant buildings downtown; we didn’t have much on the horizon in terms of development. We had very little foot traffic and it was just not the downtown that people wanted,” said Swaine.
Their first plan of attack was to raise interest in the empty buildings downtown. They began to make calls to the owners of the vacant buildings, encouraging them to sell their empty and rundown properties. In addition, the DDA also made cold calls to businessmen and developers alike, asking them to consider renovating the newly available buildings. Through their hard work and perseverance, things began to happen as they generated more interest in rehabilitating the area.
Not only did the DDA seek to restore the old constructions, but they also sought to make them into new, thriving businesses. Swaine realized that developing residential areas was vital to the growth of downtown.
“Five or six years ago, we had a total of about 500 people living downtown. That is a pitifully small number for a town our size and a downtown our size. The most important mandate that we set for ourselves when I came into this job was expanding residential opportunities. And the reason that is important is because otherwise you are an eight-to-five downtown. We have anywhere from 11,000 to 14,000 employees that work in downtown Shreveport Monday through Friday, but by and large, those people don’t live downtown. They work downtown,” Swaine said.
After the success of Ogilvie Hardware Lofts, a subsidized housing complex that opened in 2012, it became clear to the DDA that there was a need for market rate housing. Lofts at 624, a new apartment complex located on the corner of Texas and Louisiana streets, is the answer to this need. Shreveport city councilman and project manager for Lofts at 624, Jeff Everson, asserts that the appeal of living in a more urban setting downtown is growing and not limited to one demographic or generation.
“Millennials, retiring baby boomers and Gen Xers, too, all like the feel of the city. There’s a sort of density and energy that comes with an urban setting. It’s something that people have a renewed interest in the last few years,” said Everson.
These high-quality apartments, which are due to open within weeks, range in size, from studio to penthouse, and range in price from $700-$1,870 per month. They also come complete with new appliances, Internet, dedicated parking and washers and dryers.
“In a building like this, you basically have a new construction building that’s in an old construction setting. You’ve got the character of the classic building, but all the construction is new and energy efficient,” Everson said.
Everson has not only observed an increase in residential interest, but in commercial interest downtown as well. These two are essential to each other, as adding more residential properties boosts businesses located downtown.
“Having those noticeable increases in the number of downtown residents helps to provide foot traffic to local business providers, local cafes and restaurants and it also helps to provide a sense of safety in numbers,” Everson said.
Lofts at 624 will not only provide housing, but also commercial and office space. A popular locally owned coffee shop, Rhino Coffee, has opened a second location on the ground floor of this newly renovated building. Owner Andrew Crawford originally explored downtown as an option when he was looking for a place to roast coffee beans. He eventually found the perfect spot right across the street from Lofts at 624, which happened to be owned by the same developer. They created the perfect avenue for Crawford to accomplish both goals and be more involved in downtown’s development.
“Currently, our vision is of a place that is welcoming to all; that provides opportunities, a creative outlet and a sense of place. It’s not just a downtown, it’s a community.”
Crawford decided to add wine and beer to the menu and host events, such as live music on Friday nights. All of this has contributed to making Rhino a welcoming environment and creating more of an evening atmosphere at the downtown location.
“We want you to stay. We try to make it inviting; a place where you can come and read a book, drink a glass of wine, have an afternoon with friends. That’s our goal,” said Crawford.
The DDA maintains its focus of working to make the downtown area a thriving and inviting place, with clear goals for the future.
“Currently, our vision is of a place that is welcoming to all; that provides opportunities, a creative outlet and a sense of place. It’s not just a downtown, it’s a community,” said Swaine.
Swaine hopes to concentrate on creating more foot traffic and beautiful scenery over the next five years.
“I hope that we have even more opportunities and options and places to live, more options and places to eat, to drink, to shop, that we have improved our pedestrian feel. I hope that in five years, we’ve made great strides in making downtown a place where you prefer to walk or ride your bike to your car,” said Swaine.
Her 10-year goal is even bigger: to have every possible building renovated. Part of accomplishing this goal has been to promote grants and tax credits that encourage developers to take the financial risk of renovating a building. One in particular, called the State Historic Tax Credit, provides 25 percent of all qualified costs of a building, up to $5 million.
“I can tell you absolutely without hesitation that if we did not have the State Historic Tax Credit that the dollars and cents of historic rehab in Shreveport would not make sense,” Swaine said. “When you’re looking at rehabbing a building that’s been sitting vacant for 40, sometimes 50 years, the roof has caved in, the termites have eaten through the beams, there’s all sorts of problems that you know about and a bunch that you don’t and you won’t realize until you’ve already spent the money. The tax credit provides a sense that you will at least break even on this project.”
There are a wide variety of options available, both to developers and business owners. One alternative is a low interest revolving loan fund or a Façade Grant. The DDA, along with another organization called the Downtown Shreveport Development Corporation (DSDC), has partnered with the Community Foundation to provide other grants, such as the “Do Business Downtown Grant,” which ended in December 2016. This grant allowed the DSDC to pay for the startup costs for a new business for six months. Through this process approximately 17 new businesses have opened downtown.
The DDA has also targeted specific concerns that have made citizens wary of living downtown, or in some cases, even going there. One such issue is the parking options, or lack thereof. The DDA has approached this issue very creatively.
“The last thing that we want to do is tear down more buildings for service lots,” said Swaine.
One of the solutions has been to create what is called a downtown circulator. The Sportran bus terminal on Crockett Street will be moving to another location on Murphy Street within the upcoming months. This terminal will be transformed into the circulator hub, with three smaller buses that will be constantly driving through downtown to provide transportation to different locations. This means that citizens can take advantage of free parking at various locations, such as the Municipal Auditorium, the Shreveport Convention Center and riverfront. Then, they will simply wait for a circulator to pick them up and transport them to their desired destination.
The DDA also has been developing a parking app, which will allow tracking and feeding parking meters via smart phone. This will eliminate the frustration of parking tickets and constantly going to put money in the meter.
An additional problem for downtown residents is the lack of grocery stores in the area. Another new upscale apartment complex, the Standard, located at 509 Market St., is building a grocery store on the main floor.
“You’ll be able to get produce, a gallon of milk, some meat, some cheese, craft beer; it’ll be a really nice spot. And that’ll be perfect until we get an even more residential downtown and we can go to a Brookshire’s or something like that,” said Swaine.
“Really when you look at the crime statistics for the city of Shreveport, the area we’re in has the lowest crime rate in the city, so downtown, for many years, has fought with the perception of crime.”
In addition, the Shreveport Farmers’ Market takes place on Crockett Street throughout the summer and into the fall. This is an excellent opportunity to buy fresh and organic produce and other food items. Another development is the opening of a Family Dollar Store on the corner of Caddo and Common Streets.
For years, many were fearful of downtown because of safety and crime concerns. Swaine argues that these fears are really unfounded.
“Really when you look at the crime statistics for the city of Shreveport, the area we’re in has the lowest crime rate in the city, so downtown, for many years, has fought with the perception of crime,” Swaine said. “And the reason that perception has been there is because it’s been empty. A lot of that fear is now being alleviated because we have a lot more foot traffic.”
In addition, the Shreveport Police Department works very efficiently and quickly to make sure that everything is secure. The DDA maintains a close partnership with the police to help them buy any equipment that they may need and supports them in every way possible.
The DDA has sought to draw more interest to downtown by developing an art culture in the area. The DDA supports many art-related activities and events, working closely with other groups such as the Shreveport Regional Arts Council, the Strand Theatre and Robinson Film Center. They have seen huge results from the process.
“Art is economic development. Many cities have turned art and culture districts into places where people want to be. Every week there is something going on that’s art related. You don’t have to be an artist to participate in it — anyone can,” Swaine said.
“You compare the cultural offerings of our city to the cultural offerings of a city two or three times our size; we can meet it or exceed it,” said Everson.
Swaine encourages everyone who wants to be more involved to check out the Downtown Development Authority Facebook page in addition to the Shreveport-Bossier Fun Guide.
Another attractive feature downtown is the history behind the buildings. For example, the Lofts at 624 building once housed Sears, which was the location of the first credit card transaction and the first escalator in Shreveport. It was also the store that Elvis Presley worked at during the day while his music career was taking off in the Municipal Auditorium.
“It’s a cool thing to realize who has passed through this space before you,” said Everson.
For Swaine, the history of downtown is one of the things that make it so valuable.
“Downtown is where we started. If you have a strong, vibrant, opportunity-filled downtown, it means the rest of your city is growing as well. We have an authenticity in downtown Shreveport that really resonates in people. They love hearing the stories of how a building came to be, the events that came before them; it grounds us in a place and that’s why it is so very important,” said Swaine.