Group shares ideas on how to make downtown Houma more welcoming

About 50 business owners, nonprofit leaders, government officials and others gathered last week to tour downtown Houma and talk about its future.

Terrebonne Parish Planning Director Chris Pulaski and members of CSRS, a contracted planning firm, led the group Thursday and discussed ideas for making the downtown area more inviting for residents and visitors. The company will use the ideas to develop recommendations to submit to parish authorities to revitalize the area.

The conversation that generated the most discussion was about downgraded properties.

“It should be acted on tomorrow, not in January or February,” said Tommy Guarisco, owner of Downtown Jeaux coffee shop. “There is policy, there is money, now we need action. A lot of people have invested here.”

Outside a condemned building on Main Street, Deon Stewart explained the process the parish government must follow to condemn abandoned properties. Homeowners have enjoyed a period of leeway since Hurricane Ida, said Stewart, the parish’s assistant director for nuisance abatement. But from next year, inspectors will come out to start assessing properties again.

Members of the nonprofit Hache Grant said they conducted an informal online survey to see what people would like in downtown Houma. The top three answers were a grocery store, a beer garden, and a museum. Hache Grant President Noah Lirette, owner of Bayou Terrebonne Distillers on Main Street, said the location would be perfect for a grocery store.

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The tour started at the bandstand in the courthouse square, completed earlier this year with money raised by the Ax Grant Association. The group made brief stops at many locations where participants discussed ways to do future projects together.

Lirette said one of the biggest hurdles to returning downtown is buying the old buildings and bringing them up to code. He said that when he bought his business he faced costs that were unknown to him at the time, and once they surfaced he was too involved to back down.

“So we have to educate,” he said. “We need to get people to invest in the city center to preserve it, because preservation is a decision. You need to take action to make it happen.”

Shantelle Abshire, real estate agent and owner of Root to Rise, a downtown yoga studio, said placing apartments atop some of the businesses would create a vibrant community in the area.

Members said these things take money and storms like Ida will come back to sink these investments. They asked where they could find money to implement changes.

Pulaski and CSRS senior planner Sarah Olivier said there was hope. Oliver said Houma will see an “unprecedented level of funding” not only due to Hurricane Ida disaster relief, but also the infrastructure bill passed by Congress.

The infrastructure bill, she said, is tied to improving new transport routes that aren’t cars, such as footbridges and cycle paths. She said it is also related to strengthening buildings and other structures to protect against natural disasters.

“So the things that you’re asking for, in many ways, we would have to do anyway because of the way the funding is coming out,” Olivier said. “They want us to upgrade it to get stronger to recover faster to make it more resilient.”

The group toured the interior of The Little Theaterwhich plans to reopen on Monday after two years of renovations.

“It’s hopefully a downtown centerpiece, something we can build on,” said Steve Crispino, the theater’s former president.

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