This story appeared in the June/July issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
By Amanda Lanata, Assistant Director, Louisiana Main Street and Certified Local Government Coordinator
Like many historic business districts, Denham Springs’ downtown was struggling in the 1970s. A handful of legacy businesses stayed open, but many of the buildings were vacant.
In the 1980s, though, things started to slowly change. “After the April 1983 flood, the owner of the old Carol Theatre relocated her inventory of antiques from a flooded property to the downtown building,” said Pat Genre, board member for Denham Springs Main Street. “Other antique dealers began to discover the potential of these old buildings. This was the beginning of the Antique Village.”
These business owners formed the Antique Village Merchants Association to promote downtown as an antique shopping destination. They paid for marketing and advertising, created a walking guide, and took on events like Spring Festival, Fall Festival and Chef’s Evening.
In 1997, Denham Springs was recognized as a local historic district and a Louisiana Main Street. Fast forward to 2023. The “Village” is thriving — and diversifying its business mix. While the revitalization was rooted in antiques, downtown is now home to an eclectic mix of boutiques, salons, art galleries and other shops. There’s also a bookstore and brewery.
Photo 1: Downtown Denham Springs in 1996, the year before it was designated a Louisiana Main Street district. Photo courtesy of Denham Springs Main Street. Photo 2: Downtown today. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Travel.
Donna Jennings saw the transformation firsthand. Before starting as Main Street director in 2004, Jennings worked at the local newspaper and assisted the Merchants Association with advertising. “It’s been an incredible journey from being at the newspaper when it was a ghost town, to seeing it built up and then starting as Main Street director,” Jennings said.
The events brought people back downtown, and antique and resale stores multiplied. “Whenever a building was rehabbed, it was not difficult to get it occupied with a business,” said Al Bye, president of the Merchants Association. The downtown began attracting antique shoppers and film industry buyers looking for movie props.
“It’s a blue-ribbon winner right in the heart of Denham Springs,” said Eric Edwards, director of Livingston Parish Tourism. “It brings people off the interstate.”
Downtown became an economic driver for the parish. “Investing in our Main Street benefits our Antique District and businesses throughout Livingston Parish,” said State Rep. Buddy Mincey. “Downtown is the draw, and visitors stop along the way to shop, eat and buy gas in other areas of the parish.”
Meanwhile, Jennings secured funding to replace the cracked sidewalks with pavers. The Main Street organization spearheaded a project to rehab the Old City Hall (individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993) into a visitors center and museum. The Denham Springs Commercial Historic District was listed in the National Register in 2018, unlocking federal historic rehabilitation tax credits for property owners. Several building owners received Restoration Grants from Louisiana Main Street. Downtown was humming, and then the Great Flood of 2016 struck. Forty percent of downtown businesses flooded, along with most of the city. Neighbor helped neighbor, including downtown business owners who made sure that everyone could keep their doors open. Bye’s business, Theater listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993) into a visitors center and museum. The Denham Springs Commercial Historic District was listed in the National Register in 2018, unlocking federal historic rehabilitation tax credits for property owners. Several building owners received Restoration Grants from Louisiana Main Street.
Photo 1: The vacant and deteriorated Old City Hall building before rehabilitation. Photo 2: Old City Hall after its rehabilitation into a museum and visitors center. Photos courtesy of the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation National Register Program
Downtown was humming, and then the Great Flood of 2016 struck. Forty percent of downtown businesses flooded, along with most of the city. Neighbor helped neighbor, including downtown business owners who made sure that everyone could keep their doors open. Bye’s business, Theater Antiques, took on water. “The flood was devastating, but other shop owners offered assistance, whether it was the use of their wheelbarrow or bringing food,” Bye said.
However, as weeks and months passed, another problem surfaced: customers thought that downtown was still flooded and shut down. Louisiana Main Street organized a Preservation in Print article in September 2016 alerting people that 60 percent of Main Street businesses were flood-free and open for business.
The pandemic also disrupted downtown, but many businesses switched to curbside service. They’ve also seen an upsurge in support for small businesses. “People knew small businesses were taking a hit,” Bye said. The Merchants Association continued with its marketing and has increasingly found success with social media advertising. Jennings noted that merchants typically see increased sales after “boosting” a post, with some recording their biggest weekly sales results for the year.
Denham Springs has seen impressive economic results for a small town (population 9,300). Downtown has logged $6.9 million of private investment and $530,700 of public investment. Downtown merchants have generated 34 net new businesses and 113 jobs. For Livingston Parish Tourism, its economic impact has grown from $12 million in 2007 to $125 million in 2019.
A strong downtown can also have a positive impact on the perception of our communities. “Main Street is our front door. It is where we introduce people to Louisiana, to our quality of life and our good people,” Mincey said. “I am excited to continue investing in downtown Denham Springs as we work on upcoming beautification and safety projects.”
This is the power of Main Street: Denham Springs has totally revitalized its downtown. What’s its secret? It’s the remarkably strong partnership among the Main Street program, the Merchants Association and Livingston Parish Tourism. “It’s such a natural relationship. We all come together to showcase one of the gems in our area,” Edwards said. It’s a synergy; the Merchants Association and Main Street host events, which Tourism promotes. The shoppers spend money downtown, supporting local businesses and bringing in tax revenue for the city and tourism. “You need to have people who are open to change and willing to work together,” Jennings said. “The Main Street director can’t do everything.”
Bye described a sense of family among the downtown business owners. “We know one another and shop with each other,” he said. “In the Village, shops help one another. Customers can sense that — the feeling of comradery.”
Photo 1: Shoppers enjoy more than 25 shops in downtown Denham Springs. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Travel. Photo 2: Forty percent of downtown businesses flooded in 2016.