Louisiana | 2006 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 6/5/2006
In the 1970s, local residents recall, you could toss a quarter down Front Street in downtown Natchitoches without hitting a thing.
The oldest permanent establishment in the Louisiana Purchase territory, Natchitoches was founded in 1714. Its 33-block downtown district was a thriving center of commerce until the 1970s. Commercial vacancies rose, tourism slowed to a standstill, and citizens made little effort to preserve historic properties.
Concerned leaders joined together to explore ways of strengthening the town's economy while protecting its historic buildings. In 1978, they created a local historic district commission, which drafted design guidelines, oversaw a handful of rehabilitation projects, and sought designation with the National Register of Historic Places. In 1984, Natchi-toches earned its designation, becoming one of only two National Historic Landmark Districts in the state.
The major catalyst for revitalizing downtown Natchi-toches, however, came in 1988 with the filming of Steel Magnolias, which not only brought much-needed capital to the declining district but also unleashed a whirlwind of publicity for the community, especially the historic district. Government leaders capitalized on the momentum and formed a Main Street program. In 1993, Louisiana Main Street formally designated Natchitoches a Main Street community. A year later, the U.S. Congress established the Cane River National Heritage Area, of which Natchitoches is a part. Main Street and the Cane River National Heritage Area Commission have worked together ever since to boost downtown's vitality.
A city-based program, Natchitoches Main Street must match the city funding it receives with private funds to meet its annual budget of just under $100,000. It raises matching funds by hosting special events, conducting capital campaigns, and writing grants through which Main Street funds new projects. In addition to serving as the community's lead commercial district revitalization program, Natchitoches Main Street also oversees the local farmer's market and the city's new convention center.
Partnerships for Progress
From its inception, Natchi-toches Main Street has emphasized strong partnerships with preservation, economic development, and tourism organizations to build broad-based support for its revitalization activities.
In one of its most successful efforts, Natchitoches Main Street joined together with five of its revitalization partners – the Historic Business District Association, the Historic District Development Commission, Cane River National Heritage Area, Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Natchitoches Economic Development – to offer a comprehensive package of incentives and assistance to support current businesses and attract new ones. The package includes:
- A grant program for retail development and marketing;
- Regular forums to discuss business needs and concerns with local leaders; and
- A series of workshops on visual merchandising, e-marketing, business clustering, and other relevant topics.
These assistance efforts have paid off handsomely: since 1993, downtown Natchitoches has seen a net gain of 80 new businesses and 210 new jobs.
Not only has the community seen an increase in local shopping and tourism, says J. Michael Kenny of the Historic District Business Association: "It has seen the complete transformation of a nearly once-empty area into a district with improved and varied storefronts, rehabilitated buildings, and ongoing developments that will ensure the downtown's continued longevity."
Building a Market
One of the major challenges facing Natchitoches Main Street was the need to build a year-round customer base for its merchants. People flocked to the community every December to enjoy the Christmas Festival of Lights, which annually attracts more than 300,000 visitors, but merchants found themselves struggling the rest of the year to meet their sales goals.
Natchitoches Main Street believed it could meet this challenge by leveraging the area's preservation assets – the downtown's historic architecture and the town's location in the Cane River Heritage Area – to create a competitive advantage for local businesses. Main Street worked closely with the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Historic District Development Commission, and its historic preservation partners to develop a year-round heritage tourism program designed to attract both visitors and residents.
The partnering organizations launched a series of joint advertising campaigns, established a grant fund for marketing efforts, and developed preservation-driven special events, including the Bloomin'on the Bricks spring garden festival, Celebration on the Cane, and an Annual Pilgrimage Tour. Today, downtown Natchitoches hosts 12 annual special events that attract growing audiences, provide merchants with a strong and steady customer base, and account for 10 percent of the Main Street program's annual revenue.
With events such as Boogie on the Bricks, produced with Northwestern State University, the Back to School Bash, and Witch Way to Main Street, Natchitoches Main Street makes an effort to engage every age group. It also works with the convention and visitors bureau to organize retail-driven events designed to build walk-in traffic.
Along with the growth in tourism, Natchitoches has seen a surge in the number of lodging establishments, with one 20-room hotel and more than 40 bed and breakfasts, comprising 20 percent of the downtown's 147 businesses.
Natchitoches Main Street continues to build on its promotion and heritage tourism successes by refining its marketing efforts and soliciting assistance from the National Trust's Heritage Tourism Program to develop a tourism marketing plan and host visitor service and hospitality training workshops for frontline tourism employees in the district.
Main Street has also worked to position Natchitoches as a niche destination for weddings, honeymooners, and retirees. Leveraging the history and charm of the historic district and working in partnership with local historic preservation, tourism, and business groups, Natchitoches Main Street has recruited appropriate businesses and created a cooperative media campaign to get wedding planners and honeymooners to consider Natchi-toches as their destination.
Today, Natchitoches attracts more than a million visitors annually and has been recognized nationally by such publications as Where to Retire and Kiplinger magazine as a retiree-friendly community. In 2005, the National Trust named Natchitoches as one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations; since that time, merchants have reported a dramatic increase in sales, enabling the city to reinvest additional sales tax revenue in future revitalization projects. The commercial district building vacancy rate, once as high as 65 percent, has dropped to 1 percent.
Passionate about the Past
In 2004, First Lady Laura Bush recognized Natchitoches' passionate commitment to preserving its heritage by naming it a Preserve America community. Through the years, Natchitoches Main Street has actively worked to preserve the downtown's historic architecture, plan for change, and improve the overall appearance of the commercial district.
In 1998, Natchitoches Main Street received a boost when local leaders successfully petitioned state legislators to create a downtown development commission, funded through local hotel/motel taxes for the sole purpose of developing the downtown area. Through its seat on the Historic Downtown Develop-ment Commission (HDDC), the Main Street program urged use of HDDC funds to create a grant program for façade and landscape improvements. To date, $250,000 in grant funds have been used to renovate 35 facades and rehab eight historic buildings, and another $75,000 in landscape grants have been used to create beautiful restaurant courtyards.
Main Street also worked with the HDDC to use $60,000 of federal Cane River Heritage Area funds to conduct a Historic American Buildings Survey of 25 commercial buildings. Property owners have used the survey data to plan their renovations.
Among the notable restoration projects that have taken place are the rehabs of the Nakatosh Hotel and the Prudhomme Rouquier House.
Built between 1899 and 1909, the Nakatosh Hotel sat vacant for more than 30 years on a key corner of the historic district as property owners attempted to untangle legal issues surrounding the building. During this time, the property began to deteriorate, creating not only an eyesore but a hazard for visitors and residents. In 2001, a local developer took ownership of the property. Natchitoches Main Street and its partners (the city, HDDC, and the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation) pooled their funds to finance the hotel's restoration. Today, the building houses shops, an art gallery, and restaurants on the first floor and 20 of the downtown's upper-story housing units, once again restoring it as a key anchor of the historic commercial district.
Federal funds played a key role in the restoration of another Natchitoches landmark, the Prudhomme-Rouquier House. Owned by the Service League of Natchi-toches, the 1806 building is a rare, two-and-a-half story bousillage Creole structure, the largest of its kind in the United States. A $250,000 Save America's Treasures grant, along with money from local fund-raising efforts and other groups, financed the restoration. Today, the house serves as a site for public meetings, wedding receptions, and even as a location for television and film productions, helping drive the downtown's economy.
When Natchitoches Main Street began in 1993, there was a severe shortage of affordable housing in the downtown. At the time, few of the available upper-story housing units were considered livable. Main Street worked with property owners to secure grants and other funding to renovate such properties, most notably the Nakatosh Hotel, which now supplies 20 condominiums. Property owners responded to this and other successful revitalization projects by investing in the restoration of more than 50 housing units along the downtown's two main thoroughfares.
Main Street is also teaming up with the Historic District Homeowner's Association to encourage the rehabilitation of many historic homes that had been turned into cheap rental properties for college students. The two groups are encouraging owners to restore and re-use these properties as single-family homes or bed and breakfasts. Main Street works closely with the association to educate its members on design, planning, and zoning issues, as well as informing them about the financial incentives available for restoration.
As a result of these efforts, downtown Natchitoches now has 125 housing units and only a 2 percent vacancy rate for downtown housing.
Overall, Natchitoches Main Street and its revitalization partners have leveraged $15 million in public support into $48 million of private investment.
Nurturing the Next Generation
Preserving the past means planning for the future and Natchitoches is taking important steps to nurture the next generation of preservationists. By partnering with Northwestern State University's graduate programs in journalism, tourism, and hospitality management, Main Street offers internships and volunteer opportunities to give students first-hand experience in preservation management and other revitalization activities.
Main Street also organizes heritage education activities for elementary and secondary school students and teachers in partnership with the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches and the Nat-ional Center for Preser-vation Technology and Training (NCPTT), which is headquartered in Natchitoches. Educational activities include a week-long summer camp where children learn about Natchitoches history and "Preservation in Your Community," an annual event produced jointly by NCPTT and Main Street where interns present their research to the community.
Through the efforts of Natchitoches Main Street and its partners, the downtown has taken on new life, becoming, in the words of Nick Pollacia, president of the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce, "a district that is business friendly, tourist friendly, and more importantly, community friendly."
"The revitalization of Natchitoches is the direct result of the community's unified goal to reestablish its historic commercial district. Natchitoches has made great strides not only by reclaiming its buildings and recruiting new businesses but by promoting its downtown as the heart and soul of the community."
Richard Moe, president
National Trust for Historic Preservation
- Year Formed: 1993
- Budget: $98,970 (FY June 2004 to May 2005)
- Total Businesses in District: 147
- District Size: 45 square blocks
- Housing in District: 125 units
- Total Investment in Revitalization:
- Public – $15 million; Private – $48 million
- Net Jobs Created: 210
- Net Businesses Created: 80
- Building Projects: 8 historic rehabilitations; 35 façade improvements; 6 new construction projects; 15 infill construction projects