Written by Erica Stewart
You know that old saying about sticking to it, "come hell or high water?" The good folks of Bastrop, Louisiana sure do.
Their story begins nearly a decade ago. Working with the City of Bastrop and the Morehouse Parish School System, the Bastrop Main Street organization proposed in 2001 a rehabilitation of the 1927 Bastrop High School into roughly 70 independent living apartments for the elderly. After sixty years of proud service to the community, the local landmark had been vacated, gradually becoming the historic district’s most unattractive building and greatest liability. It eventually found its way onto Louisiana’s listing of most endangered historic sites.
Today, nearly ten years after the original plan, word has come that all funding has been secured for the rehabilitation of the historic school building, bringing good news of tremendous economic development to the northeastern corner of Louisiana – a place that saw its largest employer, International Paper, close its plant last year.
The first funds to lift the project off the ground actually came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation through the Byrd Foundation, which helped fund an environmental study to identify what issues might be involved with the restoration. No significant problems were identified. After listing the project on the National Register in 2002, the next big break came in September 2005 when HUD’s HOPE VI Main Street grant program was announced. This federal program was designed to support the creation of affordable housing in the downtowns of smaller-sized cities and towns.
When news of the funding availability came, Bastrop Main Street quickly assembled a team to undertake the extremely labor-intensive application. Everything was on track when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, particularly affecting the home of Tom Crumley, a key contributor to the application team. The storm sent Tom packing to higher ground only three working days before the submission was due. Working through the Labor Day weekend in Bastrop, the team pulled off a near-miracle and submitted the application on time.
Their superhuman effort was quickly rewarded with a $500,000 grant for the project. The timing was perfect, as rains from Hurricane Katrina had wreaked more damage on the Bastrop High School building, causing roof leaks that spurred further deterioration of the historic structure. HOPE VI funds were used to cover architectural and environmental expenses while additional funding was sought.
Fast forward to 2009, and the high school – despite all previous fundraising efforts – remained largely untouched due to a huge financing gap. It wouldn’t be until December 21, 2009, that local and federal lawmakers would announce the procurement of more than $13 million in state, federal, and private funds for the project. Approximately 55% of the project’s funds came from two new programs created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help spur projects stalled by the economic recession. The Tax Credit Exchange Program and the Tax Credit Assistance Program, both administered by the Louisiana Housing Finance Authority, allocated $6.4 million and $871,000 respectively, to the rehabilitation.
With these funds in place, the project will break ground in July 2010, with a late 2011 opening expected. Optimism is sky high after reaching this huge milestone through ten years of hard work. Bastrop Mayor Betty Alford-Olive is excited by the catalytic potential of the project: “With other property near the site available for development, we believe investors will see the opportunity to serve the facility and create new jobs in the community.”
So, please stay tuned; despite the long prologue, this story has just begun.
Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's community revitalization department.