PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

Local News

March 4, 2013

Operation: Downtown Port Arthur

City, EDC join with private sector to spur development downtown

PORT ARTHUR — Yes, it would be cheaper to tear down those old eyesores downtown, but it would deprive Port Arthur of its rich history, said Floyd Batiste, CEO of the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation.

“We need to preserve downtown,” he said.

Batiste and the EDC’s board of directors and the Port Arthur City Council made the decision in 2009 to bring life back to downtown through its Operation Downtown Site Improvement Grant Program.

The board agreed to funnel funds into renovation projects spearheaded by private entities. The EDC set aside $750,000 a year for the past three years to go toward demolition and infrastructure improvements. The City Council recently renewed the funding initiative for another three years.

It is through these public/private partnerships that the EDC has planned to refurbish and rebuild the downtown area, Batiste said. But the idea was not new — it has been done before.

The EDC looked at other cities that had instituted similar plans to rejuvenate their downtown districts, particularly Greenville, S.C. Batiste said Greenville was once much like Port Arthur but today is a “bustling community” because of the city’s government vision and the partnerships it made with the private sector.

“If you plan and execute the plan, good things can happen,” Batiste said.

But someone must take the first step. Someone must make what might seem like a leap before it becomes a stampede, and that is what the EDC has done, Batiste said.

The EDC purchased the old Port Arthur Savings Building on Procter Street in 2010 with the intent of restoring and converting it into an office space for the EDC and at least two other entities, possibly the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce. The project estimate was over $4 million, including a federal tax credit of $1 million.

Some say that is a waste of money. After all, the EDC funds its projects with tax dollars. But Batiste did not doubt the decision.

“There must an anchor downtown,” he said. “And it must be a big anchor.”

If the city really wants to develop downtown, then there must be an anchor there to which other entities — private or public — could moor, Batiste said. If the EDC builds it, then others will come.

And they are coming. One by one, companies and individuals have approached the EDC about its incentive program. The EDC provided funding for exterior repairs to DezTex Industrial Services for its office on Rev. Dr. Ransom Howard Street and Kilgore Construction Inc. for its Procter Street office. The city received funding for repairs to the outside of the police station and municipal court and to renovate the downtown pavilion. A total of 11 projects have been funded.

Port Arthur natives Alona and Donell Lavalais are one of those 11 projects. The couple scoured their savings to convert a downtown building into an event hall for all occasions.

The idea started with Alona Lavalais, 54. She always wanted to own a building that she could decorate and rent out to people throwing parties or receptions, she said. But whenever she attended these events elsewhere, the hosts would disclose their complaints to her: The air conditioner did not work well. The rent time was too short. The deposit was outrageous.

Alona Lavalais thought she could open an event hall of her own that would not be rife with unsatisfied customers. So she and her husband looked around town for the right place.

After some contemplation, the couple bought a building on 6th Street and approached the EDC about receiving a possible refund for some of the renovations they would make to the property. They filled out a rather hefty application, crossed their fingers and waited.

The EDC approved the application for the banquet hall at 440 6th Street, meaning it would reimburse Alona and Donell Lavalais about 25 percent of cost of the project – or $9,285, according to a copy of the agreement – upon completion. The final project cost was estimated to be $37,340.87 to renovate the building.

They hope to have the event hall open by May, Alona Lavalais said. But they have had some setbacks along the way in the form of heavy rains and sickly workers. She even had trouble getting some contractors to come out and look at the building.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have waited for someone who never came,” Alona Lavalais said.

But barring any other unforeseen circumstances, the event hall will be open in time for the summer event season. Then 440 6th Street will no longer be another eyesore downtown but a piece of Port Arthur’s history that has been restored and can live on for many more years.

email: bcrum@panews.com

twitter: @broocrum

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