DOWNTOWN WEST MONROE BLENDS OLD AND NEW WITH REVITALIZATION PROJECTS
article by Kay Stothart Rector | photos by Martin G Meyers
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, downtown West Monroe is bustling with people strolling down sidewalks, moving in and out of shops along Trenton Street in Antique Alley. Downtown merchants are busy with customers. The outdoor spaces are inviting, an aesthetically pleasing mix of historic preservation and modern amenities. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of West Monroe business leaders, city officials and residents, the heart of this city is vibrant and flourishing.
New landscaping, iron benches and hanging baskets full of blooming annuals are just a few of the improvements to the downtown commercial district spearheaded by the Downtown West Monroe Revitalization Group. Courtney Hornsby, President of the West Monroe West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce, is a member of the group’s Board of Directors. She explains that the organization was founded by community and business leaders, who came together specifically to help raise money for the enhancement of downtown West Monroe. “We want to bring true revitalization to downtown and the Cotton Port Historic District through aesthetics, capital improvements and historic preservation,” says Hornsby.
A relatively young organization, the DWMRG was established in 2014. Hornsby says the group initially selected projects it hoped would make the biggest impact with the funds that were available. The purchase of flower baskets, iron trash bins and benches added punches of color and helped to improve the overall look of the historic district. Hornsby says the feedback from merchants and visitors to downtown was immediate and positive. “Even though these were small things, people noticed and were very appreciative,” she says.
“We also started looking at different sites downtown that needed some planning and visioning,” Hornsby recalls. The group’s plans for one of those sites came to fruition in 2016 with the repair and painting of the metal flower sculpture located at the corner of Trenton and Wood Streets. This unique, whimsical sculpture was created by artist Edmund Williamson. Over the past two decades, its colors faded, and it had fallen into a state of disrepair. The group raised funds and partnered with ARROW Public Art, led by artist Brooke Foy, to restore the moving artwork to its original condition. The City of West Monroe added new landscaping to complete the project.
Near the flower sculpture, there is now a “Little Free Library” where visitors can help themselves to a book to enjoy, or leave a book for the next reader. Deemed the “Little Library on the Alley,” it was built and donated by Johnny Cascio in partnership with the Ouachita Parish Public Library. The unique structure is a replica of the original West Monroe City Hall, complete with a miniature bell tower.
Two main downtown intersections, Trenton at Natchitoches Street and Trenton at Pine Street, now have large painted medallions at their centers, with images that reflect the area’s history. The crosswalk medallions, designed by West Monroe artist Emery Thibodeaux, depict the cotton industry’s historical modes of transportation. ARROW Public Art, with help from Thibodeaux, painted the designs onto the crosswalks at each intersection. “The painting project was a rather monumental task,” Hornsby recalls. “We had to close off streets and re-route traffic, but the results are beautiful and certainly enhance these public walkways.” Hornsby says she expects two additional designs submitted by Thibodeaux to be transferred onto other downtown crosswalks during the coming summer months.
Another beautification project implemented with the help of DWMRG spans both sides of the Ouachita River. Coca Cola mural paintings–two in downtown West Monroe and two in downtown Monroe—have been restored and repainted using the original colors and designs. “These were originally advertisements,” Hornsby explains, “the equivalent of billboards in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.” She points out that while the murals are painted on privately owned commercial buildings, the Group thought it was important to preserve this bit of Ouachita Parish history, while at the same time making downtown more attractive.
“This community is extremely fortunate and in a unique position to have two downtowns within minutes of each other,” says Hornsby. “Revitalization is going on in downtown Monroe, and it is so exciting to see that happening on the west side of the river as well.” As Hornsby points out, the two downtowns are different but complement each other in a very positive way. “Each downtown has a different look and feel, and there are different types of stores and restaurants and activities in both. There is certainly room for both in our community,” she says.
Monroe and West Monroe draw visitors who drive to this area from other communities for shopping, dining and entertainment. The aim of DWMRG is to make downtown attractive to visitors as well as local residents, so that they want to spend their time and money in support of local merchants. “Downtown has so much to offer, and can really be the heart of a community,” notes Hornsby.
DWMRG works closely with the Antique Alley Merchants Association, a separate entity founded by merchants with businesses along Trenton Street. The Antique Alley Merchants Association is a very active organization, whose goal is to promote and market the unique commercial corridor known as Antique Alley. As Antique Alley Merchants Association President Karen Laban explains, the Merchants Association primarily focuses on marketing. Since its formation thirty years ago, the Merchants Association has grown from seven original members to over thirty merchant members. Through its marketing efforts, the Association has literally put Antique Alley “on the map.” “West Monroe’s Antique Alley is referred to in travel guides and even recognized by Rand McNally,” Laban notes. “Over the years, we have considered changing our name, because Antique Alley consists of much more than just antique shops,” Laban says, noting that there are also clothing and accessory boutiques, specialty shops, restaurants and a bed and breakfast along this stretch of downtown Trenton Street. However, the Merchants Association is reluctant to jeopardize the gains made through years of promoting the area under that name.
Laban is the owner of The Spice and Tea Exchange, a retail shop specializing in spices and seasonings, exotic teas, olive oils and other culinary products located at 229 Trenton Street in downtown West Monroe. Her shop originally opened in 2010, just down the street from its current location. Laban and her husband purchased and renovated the former Hatchell Department Store building and moved into their current space in 2015.
Association President Tonya Hamilton, owner of Hamilton House Inn on Trenton Street, also serves on the Board of both the AAMA and the DWMRG. She, Laban and others have worked hard to bring more events and activities to Antique Alley. As merchants and active members of these associations, they are always looking for fun activities that relate to downtown and add to existing events such as art crawls, Mardi Gras parades and the semiannual Antique Alley Open House. In association with AAMA and DWMRG, Laban and Hamilton began hosting Afternoon Teas at the Hamilton House Inn. The public is invited to partake in a traditional “high tea” served on certain afternoons each Spring and Fall in the downstairs gallery of the beautifully restored Inn. The next Afternoon Tea party will be held on May 21, 2017.
Hornsby notes that planning and sponsoring events downtown are part of the whole revitalization movement. This past year, DWMRG helped host the first ever Downtown Summer Art Festival. “The Art Festival is a collaboration between several different groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, the City of West Monroe, ARROW Public Art and the Downtown West Monroe Revitalization Group,” says Hornsby. They are looking forward to a great turnout for the second annual festival, this one to be held on Saturday, April 29, 2017 and dubbed the “Downtown Spring Art Festival.” The festival is a celebration of art and artisans in a family-friendly atmosphere. In addition to music and food and booths with original artwork for sale, activities will include art demonstrations and lots of hands-on activities for kids. Festival organizers welcome artists, crafters and vendors who want to participate.
DWMRG’s signature fundraising event is the “Wild Wild West” outdoor party held each Fall in the middle of Trenton Street. This Fall will mark the third year for this fun evening event with a casual western theme, live music, dinner and an auction. Proceeds from the event help fund projects to improve, beautify and preserve the downtown area.
Hornsby says the events and beautification initiatives have brought an energy and excitement to Downtown West Monroe and an increase in participation and volunteerism from a growing number of DWMRG supporters who want to see these types of projects continue. “We especially want to thank Richland State Bank, our title sponsor,” Hornsby notes. “They stepped up immediately and helped us get started and gave us those roots that we needed to do the things that we wanted to do downtown.”
Amanda Edge, North Region Project Manager for Economic Development with Entergy, serves on the DWMRG Board of Directors. Edge stresses how crucial a thriving downtown is to a city’s economic well-being. “The impact that revitalization of a downtown area can have on a local economy is well-documented,” says Edge. “It creates jobs, increases property values and attracts tourism.” She points out that a vibrant downtown plays a key role in attracting industry. In addition to good schools and a talented workforce, companies consider the quality of life that a place can offer their employees when selecting a location, and cultural and recreational amenities are important aspects. “When site selectors come into our area to look and consider locating their businesses here, we want to stand out,” Edge says. “We want them to see the character in our community along with all that we have to offer.”
Historic preservation is an important part of DWMRG’s mission, as is raising awareness about the significance of the Cotton Port Historic District. Through a grant and support from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, DWMRG members put together a historical walking tour of the District. The tour identifies thirty key properties throughout the District and gives a brief synopsis of each property, including the year it was built, its original use and any significant architectural features and facts related to each site. Points of interest include the site of the original West Monroe City Hall on the corner of Trenton and Pine Streets. Built in 1907, the City Hall building burned in 1964. A replica of the bell tower that sat atop the building was erected on the site and encases the original bell.
Lora Peppers, a local historian, author and Genealogy Associate with the Ouachita Parish Public Library, recounts the rich and interesting history of downtown West Monroe. Once known as “Cotton Port,” the area that now encompasses Antique Alley was at one time a lively center for the import and export of cotton. “Cotton farmers from all over Northeast Louisiana and part of South Arkansas would bring their cotton here to be shipped out down to New Orleans,” says Peppers. Originally, most of this activity took place a couple of miles to the north in the community known as “Trenton,” founded in the early 1800s by William Trent. At the foot of Claiborne Street, near the Ouachita River, sat two huge cotton warehouses where cotton was stored while awaiting transport. Cotton Port, established later, took on the overflow of cotton transport business from Trenton, and began to grow. “With the location of a new railroad bridge across the Ouachita River,” Peppers explains, “Cotton Port exploded.” It soon eclipsed Trenton and became the center of activity for the cotton industry in North Louisiana. In 1884, because a community in Avoyelles Parish had already officially adopted the name “Cottonport,” the town’s name was changed to West Monroe.
Both Peppers and Hornsby point out that the Cotton Port Historic District includes more than just Trenton Street. “While a lot of focus is on Trenton Street, and rightfully so, there are other streets and alleys and pockets of this downtown area that we also want to focus on,” insists Hornsby. Along with the DWMRG members, downtown merchants and building owners have a vested interest in sharing the area’s history with visitors and preserving it for future generations.
Reminiscent of its glory days as a booming cotton import and export hub, downtown West Monroe is once again a thriving commercial corridor full of energy and activity. Antique Alley, the Cotton Port Historic District and surrounding areas continue to provide residents and visitors a great place to browse, dine, shop and celebrate life along the banks of the Ouachita River.