Hope Rewarded in Bastrop, Louisiana

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On December 20, 2011, for the first time in over a decade, the bleachers of the old Bastrop High School gym were packed again. Most of those who sat in those seats, however, were a little too old to be attending high school. But they weren’t out of place. The building on 17 South Washington no longer housed the school, which had moved to the northern part of town in 1998.

Thanks to the efforts of Bastrop Main Street and its supporters, the 1927 schoolhouse has been repurposed as an independent living apartment complex for senior citizens—you have to be over 55 years of age to be eligible for a unit. This was the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Bastrop Historic High School Apartments, and even though it was pouring torrential rain, 350 people crowded into the old gym to celebrate its much-anticipated grand opening.

“People in this community really have an affection for this building,” said Main Street Manager Marc Vereen. “Everyone went to school there at one point in their lives, pretty much, and people are just thrilled that we were able to bring it up again.”

Bastrop High School is the only high school in a small town of 13,000 people, so most townsfolk have fond memories of this brick Tudor Revival style building. Even Bastrop natives who left their hometown years ago for places as close as neighboring Monroe or as far away as cities in Tennessee, Texas, and Arkansas are moving back to live in their old schoolhouse, said Vereen. The apartments are filling up faster than expected—at present, half of the 67 units have been snapped up.

When Bastrop was designated a Louisiana Main Street community in 2000, one of its priorities was to find a way to save the historic schoolhouse, which is only two blocks from downtown. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Developer Tom Crumley, then with Woodward Interests in New Orleans, was brought on board for his experience with historic preservation, while Architects Plus and Breck Construction of Monroe, Louisiana, took on design and general contracting work respectively.

To do it right, they needed money. “At $14 million,” Vereen laughed, “it’s the most that’s ever been spent on a project in the entire history of this town.”

Yet now the project has a “crazy low” amount of debt associated with it, a testament to the determination of the project team in securing 12 different kinds of funding. This included $4.1 million in state and federal historic tax credits, more than $7 million from funds created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, $1 million in HOME funds through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a $500,000 Main Street HOPE VI HUD Grant.

Crumley worked on the application for the Main Street HOPE VI HUD Grant in 2005 despite having been evacuated to Baton Rouge due to Hurricane Katrina. Over the Labor Day weekend, Crumley headed to Bastrop and worked with the local team to complete and submit the application in time to meet HUD’s deadline.

In November 2010, enough money had been raised for work to begin. “It’s like a fairy tale story,” said Crumley. “No bad stuff, no corruption, no politics. It’s just a feel good story that worked out the way everyone wanted it to.”

At the grand opening, it is evident to all that the team’s hard work has paid off. The façade looks just like it did the day it was built, with its decorative brickwork and clean white moldings. Inside, as much as possible was kept the same to retain that familiar schoolhouse feel. Tenants who walk down the corridors, which were kept at the original dimensions—12 feet wide by 15 feet tall—can see the old lockers they used to keep their books in. With the original doors intact, every classroom has been converted into an apartment unit, and each contains a section of the original chalkboard so residents can scribble notes to themselves. The aforementioned gym, in its unique central position in the building, has retained the stage and one side of its bleachers. It is now open to the community for weddings, church group meetings, and class reunions.

While a lot of effort has gone into making 17 South Washington a place where alumni can reminisce about the old days, the team also sought to keep the project up with the times. They installed the largest residential solar system in all of Louisiana on the building’s spacious roof—430 solar panels that generate up to 106 kilowatts of power daily.

When asked why the team decided to put in the new technology, Crumley replied, “I loved the idea of combining modern technology with a historic property. Back in the twenties when this building was built, it was state-of-the-art, and now what’s state-of-the-art is this kind of stuff.” The energy generated is used to offset common area electric bills, as well as air conditioning compressor electrical use. The system saves tenants at least $25 a month.

As Ray Scriber, director of Louisiana Main Street, put it, the Bastrop Historic Apartments project is “a perfect example of how economic development and historic preservation work hand in hand in a successful local Main Street program. The end result is a treasure for the community that will last forever.”

Indeed, the community response to the Bastrop Historic Apartments has been overwhelming. Bastrop Main Street and city leaders hope that this Main Street success story will catalyze further revitalization in Bastrop, attracting investors and businesses to create new jobs in the community. For the moment, however, the project team can rest content with their Historic Apartments happy ending