Day recounts downtown revitalization plans

Published 8:56 am Sunday, November 4, 2012

By Jan Gibson

The Daily News

“I still have a lot of work to do.”

Robin Day, the program manager for downtown Bogalusa, speaking to Rotary Club members last Tuesday, had just finished talking about the success of her latest venture to make downtown relevant, the Harvest Fest, held on Friday, Oct. 25 in a small patch of green directly in front of The Daily News office. What was previously called the Bogalusa Farmers’ Market, Day has renamed Columbia Street Square.

“We may go to the public and rename it, but for now that’s my name for it,” she said

The idea for the festival was simple, according to Day.

“I decided that we needed to get people moving downtown. Knowing that it (downtown) is not just a place of blight and crime but it’s a place that we can get back to,” she said earnestly. And along with some volunteers, “some of my friends from city hall and friends in the community,” the Harvest Festival became a reality. Day asked local businesses, Columbia Street merchants and organizations such as Rotary to help fund the event. With the donations, Day was able to decorate the area, using donated hay rolls, and to rent jump and bumps, and a gaming trailer.

Some Columbia Street businesses, including Esma’s, Gayle’s Jewelers, The Daily News, as well as some city employees and volunteers, put on a cake walk (with cakes baked and donated by Day’s mom), provided games for children, and manned a concession stand with hot dogs and drinks. The Daily News provided cotton candy.

“We had an anonymous donor who donated money so that we could give the first 100 hot dogs away to children dressed in costume, and that went very quickly,” said Day laughing.

“Never in a million years did I think that many people would show up,” she said. “We sold everything we had, we gave away every prize we had.” With perfect weather for the event, Bogalusa Police Chief Joe Culpepper provided the truck and the hay for the children to enjoy a hayride, which was non-stop, said Day.

“The children loved the hayride so much they’d get in line by themselves. They couldn’t wait to see The Joker (Jerry Bailey) again. He entertained them the whole time and he looked for Batman the whole entire time. Those kids thought it was wonderful.”

There were costume contests for different ages, with prizes (gift cards) donated by Sonic. A DJ made sure there was music during the entire event, and there were no complaints about excessive noise or inappropriate music, said Day.

“Every now and then I’d catch some of my volunteers singing along or dancing along. It was just a great, great evening. It was very successful and I hope we have more to come.”

But much more work remains to be done to make the downtown area a place for Bogalusans to gather, according to Day.

“I need to get the city of Bogalusa, the property owners on Columbia Street and the downtown community to take pride in these properties and the overall area in order to bring in a new downtown.” Pausing, Day said, “I’m not trying to bring back the old downtown. I want a new downtown. I want it to be a cultural center. I’d love to see us have a theater of the arts for plays. I’d like to see coffee shops and nice restaurants. I’d like to get some of our local artists to come in and display their work down there.”

Bogalusa is blessed with a number of folks who are invested in the arts, said Day, some who make jewelry, who paint, who create ceramics, and who sing, and dance and play musical instruments.

“We need to promote that, not only to our community but also outside our community.”

Day recounted a week-long trip to Arkansas that she and Sandy Bloom, the director of personnel and projects for the city of Bogalusa, took recently, with stops at many of the small towns along the way, to see how other communities are revitalizing their downtowns.

“I learned that every community has its challenges. We are not unique, as I thought we were.”

Before the trip she thought, “My God, how does this get done? Nobody cares.” And there were those who said to her, “Why don’t you just take a bulldozer to Columbia Street?”

Her response? “The only bulldozer going down Columbia Street is going to be named Robin Day. I intend to do everything I can.”

The reason for her optimism, she said, is simple. “We have great people here.” Continuing, she said that she encourages property owners downtown to take pride in their buildings because a building that sits unused sends a wrong message, a negative message, that people just don’t care about their community.

She does have some ideas about the existing “holes” in the Colombia Street business district, including what she called “pocket parks,” and building facades on the fronts of the properties making the buildings look occupied and well cared for. She noted that community leaders in Pascagoula, Miss. had taken Katrina-damaged houses, moved them to a destroyed shopping center area and with the help of local artists created a cultural center.

Day, who seems indefatigable, brings an unrelenting optimism and complete commitment to making downtown Bogalusa the place to go once again, not as much for shopping, as it was in the past, but as a place to become more culturally aware, educated and entertained.

The key, as she says, is citizen and community involvement, as well as funding to make it happen.