Shreveport Common to use AARP grant for park

By Angel Albring | Special to BIZ. Magazine

Shreveport Common, Inc. was recently selected to receive an AARP Community Challenge Grant in the amount of $25,000.

Shreveport Common is among 184 grantees who were selected from all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Grants ranged from a few hundred dollars up to millions of dollars, depending on the project.

Shreveport Common will use the AARP grant to purchase permanent tables and chairs in the Art Bosque Food Truck Court area of the new Caddo Common park, located at 869 Texas Ave. at the epicenter of Shreveport Common and the west edge of downtown Shreveport. City of Shreveport will install the table and chair sets and Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC) will refurbish an old box truck to a mobile kiosk for renting table and lawn games.

The park, which opened Nov. 2, 2019, replaced more than two acres of broken concrete slabs, weeds and razor wire fencing with a greenspace, which includes tree-lined walking paths, a green lawn, natural water bio-swale for rainwater retention, Louisiana Gardens, wifi, and the infrastructure for the Phase II features that are to come.

Shreveport Common partners helped raise $1 million in restricted private sector funds to release a $1 million Caddo Parish restricted match to complete the Phase II park amenities which include an Outdoor Performance “Theater” designed by architect Mike McSwain and a smaller Community Pavilion, both with public restrooms, LED lit metal and plexiglass Artist-trees designed by Bruce Allen, and a Mister Station.

Additionally, SRAC has committed to providing $250,000 in annual free-to-the-public programming for the park, which includes entrepreneurial and commission opportunities for artists. City of Shreveport is committed to security and maintenance, workforce development and earned income opportunities for the neighbors, such as event set up and greens-keeping.

However, construction on the larger Phase II amenities are on hold during Covid-19 and it may be 2021 before construction can begin on the Pavilion, which will be at the opposite side of the park.

With Louisiana in Phase 3 of reopening, the neighbors and community members are beginning to come back to the park and use it for walking, picnics, and other safe outdoor activities. For some in the area, this is the only place they can be outside in a green public space.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” says Wendy Benscoter, executive director of Shreveport Common, Inc. “The purpose of the AARP Community Challenge grant is to fund “quick-action” projects to help communities become more livable for people of all ages, especially during Covid,” she explained.

“This grant allows us to get permanent seating in the park right away, which launches Phase II of the park,” she adds. According to Benscoter, the table sets are ADA accessible and will be placed 6 feet apart for social distancing so that people will have an outdoor space to eat, watch a pop-up performance or meet with friends.

In 2010, the area now known as Shreveport Common was considered a “no hope zone.”

The area was considered a treasure by some, but nothing was stopping decades of decline, according to Benscoter.

“Half of the buildings had been demolished due to self-destruction and property standards, and only 46 percent of the remaining buildings were occupied,” Benscoter said. “It was a sad front door to our downtown and our oldest neighborhood, Ledbetter Heights.”

Shreveport Common, Inc (SCI) 501(c)3 was formed from the Shreveport Common Management Team in 2015 as the redevelopment arm of the revitalization of Shreveport Common, working with the City (public buildings, venues, streets and infrastructure) and the Arts arm, Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC).

The mission of SCI is to facilitate and implement the City and Arts-led Shreveport Common Community Vision Plan to create a vibrant arts and cultural neighborhood in the 9-block area that connects downtown and Ledbetter/HUD Choice Neighborhoods. The Vision Plan was informed by a year-long, nationally featured Community Process and is City Council approved as fulfilling the 2030 Master Plan for the entire area.

This Creative Placemaking project was built on the community’s tenets for the revitalization effort: Authenticity, Creativity, Sustainability and made for ALL in the Community, with no displacement of the current neighbors. All Shreveport Common projects are built on these tenets. This nationally acclaimed project was voted the “#1 Most Outstanding Community Development Project in the Nation” by the National Development Council (2015-16) and is recognized as a “National Model” by the National Consortium of Creative Placemaking.

“Creative Placemaking is about artists connecting communities in ways which enhance neighborhoods without gentrifying them,” says Benscoter, who is also an instructor for Creative Placemaking at New England College. “Putting the neighbors and artists together to design the Vision Plan for the area and then the park brings a cultural identity and sense of belonging,” she added, “and that is stimulating and sustaining efforts to revitalize the area.”

While SRAC is working with artists to create an uncommon, creative, cultural community, SCI is working to ensure there are places and spaces for that to happen. SCI works with public and private partners and property owners to remove obstacles to redevelopment. This can include motivating the sale or donation of properties, packaging properties for redevelopment (including those with environmental concerns), pairing property owners and developers, motivating occupancy of buildings, fundraising and grant writing to advance projects of the Shreveport Common Vision Plan.

This has created equity with affordable and market-value studios, artists live/work spaces, market places, and maker and community spaces.

Today, public and private stakeholders have invested $51,000,000 in the 9-block area, saving, preserving, and redeveloping endangered buildings. In total, 26 properties have been completed and eight are under construction.

Property and business owner, Jack Allen, has seen changes in the area first-hand. He and his brother Sean recently completed major renovations on three of four historic buildings on Louisiana Street.

“This used to be the most blighted block in downtown Shreveport,” Allen says. “Today, there is less litter, less crime and more people coming to the area to visit the park. What were once boarded up buildings are now redevelopment projects all around us.”

In addition to their business, Cupio Media, Allen expects two new businesses to move in early next year and there are plans to develop an adjacent green space. He said the growth is good for the city and for the neighbors.

Jim Malsch, the new owner of the formerly blighted Andress Garage agrees.

“I’m excited about the completion of the park and the continued development in the area, including the soon to be completed Andress Artist and Entrepreneur Center. Downtown Shreveport has so much potential and it is exciting to be a part of the growth and vision of Shreveport Common.”

When the new office space, artist studios and gallery open in early 2021, it will be the first time the building has been in use in over three decades.

Currently, Shreveport Common, Inc. is actively seeking developers for properties acquired and packaged for new construction to include market-value apartments with retail, artist affordable live/workspaces, artist studios and mixed-income residential including senior apartments.

“We are excited to add AARP to the list of public and private partners who, with the neighbors, artists and property owners, are creating a fun and welcoming place for everyone,” says Benscoter. “Shreveport Common proves that together we can make a difference.”