Louisiana Main to Main Helps Rebuild State’s Cultural Economy

Strategy: Collaborate in New Ways, Enhance Your Product, Serve Local Community

Type of attraction: Main Street/Community

Summary: Three years before the rest of the nation experienced an economic downturn in 2008, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana’s cultural heritage tourism.

Three years before the rest of the nation experienced an economic downturn in 2008, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana’s cultural heritage tourism industry, says Leon Steele, community revitalization design coordinator for the Louisiana Main Street Program.

The cultural economy is a “big deal” in Louisiana, notes Steele, so the state wasted no time in developing strategies to re-establish this critical industry. “The lieutenant governor asked the staff in the Office of Cultural Development – which includes the Main Street Program and the divisions of historic preservation, archaeology, arts and tourism – to come up with something that would be effective to kickstart the tourism industry.”

Main Street Program staff immediately thought about a successful event developed by two Main Street communities. Springhill and Minden had started “Main to Main Trade Days,” an event that stretched over 55 miles and invited visitors to enjoy “food, fun and shopping” in the two towns as well as all of the small communities along the route.

“We adopted that idea and made it a statewide Main Street event called the Louisiana Main to Main: A Cultural Road Show to showcase unique local and regional cultural assets,” Steele says. “Our Main Street managers decided it was a good idea, so we planned the first one for 2006. We picked November because the weather is good, and it’s during the fall festival season and the start of the holiday shopping season.”

The Louisiana Main Street office took the idea to the lieutenant governor’s office and received a $300,000 allocation to support the event. Additionally, a $150,000 Preserve America grant was awarded to support the project in its first two years.

“We encouraged new cultural tourism events – not just what they have planned already – that were culturally focused for a town, parish or region,” Steele explains. “We allocated $5,000 to each Main Street community to off-set the cost to host and promote the event. The rest of the budget was for street and stage banners, which helped with branding the state-wide event, and for promotions.”

The response from Louisiana’s Main Street towns was tremendous – 24 participated in the first year, and by 2010 all 35 were participating in the annual event. Event organizers in each community thought creatively about what kind of event they wanted to host.

In New Orleans, the Po-Boy Preservation Festival was an immediate success. The Sunday afternoon event celebrates the city’s most famous sandwich with judged competitions featuring the city’s best-known restaurants, music, and arts and crafts with proceeds benefiting the local Oak Street Main Street program.

In Natchitoches, the city’s annual Festival of Lights, which started in 1927, had grown so much that organizers decided to expand the event to include two weeks at the end of November with the theme “Turn on the Holidays.”

 In Abbeville, organizers chose the Old Masonic Cemetery, located in the Main Street district, as the setting for “If Headstones Could Talk,” a living history event with costumed actors portraying some of the people who are buried there. “They had a huge turnout including descendants of the people they were portraying,” Steele says. The event was so successful that organizers have expanded to include the Catholic Cemetery.

Promotion in the first year was managed in collaboration with Louisiana Office of Tourism. The events were marketed statewide and in seven states in a drive market around Louisiana. As the event was established, the tourism office continued promotions through events calendars and other venues, and the Main Street Program developed a marketing campaign that includes an interactive website giving details on every community’s events (www.louisianamaintomain.org).

“Our website got hits from all over the country,” Steele says. “We advertise in state cultural tourism publications and American Road magazine, a national publication, has been especially good. We also do radio ads and have a Facebook page.”

The lieutenant governor’s office has continued to support the event with a $300,000 allocation each year. “The return on investment is tremendous with more than $16 million in economic impact throughout the state each year,” says Steele. “We asked communities to track the economic impact of their events. We have figures to show that we are not just throwing grant money out there for a party – we are creating sustainable events as part of Main Street’s economic development directive.”

The event drew more than 53,000 visitors in 2006 with merchants reporting dramatic increases in sales. Attendance in 2007 was 78,853, and in 2008 – when the economy took a steep dive – the events continued to be popular, attracting 77,109 attendees. Volunteer figures are equally impressive.

As word of Louisiana Main to Main’s success has spread, Steele has received invitations to share the planning process with others. “I created a one-day workshop to teach people how to do identify and plan cultural event like this,” Steele says. “I recently did a workshop for Main Street managers in Arkansas. It was exciting to see all of the ideas that came out of the communities.”

For more information on Louisiana Main to Main or the one-day planning workshop, contact Leon Steele at 225-342-8157 or lsteele@crt.state.la.us.