Kenner looks to reinvigorate Rivertown

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Kenner's Rivertown, which once had seven museums, now has only three.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Kenner's Rivertown, which once had seven museums, now has only three.

Kenner’s Rivertown is an important part of many of the city’s traditions.

Every spring it hosts Festa Italiana, which celebrates the city’s robust Italian-American culture. Kenner’s Lundi Gras ceremony features New Orleans-style, Carnival pageantry only on a smaller scale.

But Rivertown is part of another tradition, one that’s not so delightful. Every few years, Kenner politicians have a tradition of attempting to revitalize the historic district. Now officials are hoping that a new state office, new landscaping and new rules about alcohol could spur the commercial growth so long sought.

Kenner officials hope that a new driver’s license bureau combined with more than $400,000 in landscaping and streetscape improvements to Rivertown will give the area a facelift and more foot traffic. In addition, the Kenner City Council recently gave Rivertown an exemption from some of the city’s rules about the sale of alcoholic beverages that could benefit any restaurant opening in the area. Councilman Gregory Carroll said that things are changing in Rivertown, slowly but surely.

“For a while, the Rivertown had been dormant. … It had been stagnant,” Carroll said. “We are putting a number of things into place. … It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think we’re going in the right direction.”

In many ways, Rivertown is a conundrum for Kenner officials. It is considered the birthplace of Kenner, and therefore, officials have always sought to make it a hub for the city. On some days, it fulfills that goal, thanks to school field trips, musical concerts and festivals, like the recently completed Oktoberfest. But on other days, it can seem like a ghost town, with few visitors and no buzz.

Kenner Chief Administrative Officer Mike Quigley said that’s partially because they area isn’t really certain what it wants to be. For years, the city operated multiple museums in Rivertown dedicated to topics as varied as Native Americans and the New Orleans Saints.

But the city lacked the money to staff the facilities and update exhibits regularly. Soon they became outdated and “stale,” Quigley said.

“It had just become worn down,” said Quigley, adding that Kenner just didn’t have the budget to operate seven different top-notch museums. “It’s a good idea, but it’s hard to sustain.”

Former Mayor Ed Muniz slashed the number of museums by more than half a few years ago and concentrated all of Kenner’s efforts on its planetarium, science center and space center. The city also turned its performing arts theater over to a private company to eliminate city subsidies. Quigley said it’s part of a push to let the private sector drive Rivertown’s growth instead of Kenner’s coffers.

“The city shouldn’t be in that type of business,” he said.

Rivertown desperately needs new blood, said Kelly Fouchi, one of the directors of Theatre 13, which now manages the performing arts center. The company has plans to more than double the number of shows previously put on at the theater and restart its children’s theater program.

Rivertown needs new energy and focus if it wants to see growth, she said. Fouchi’s group has upgraded the theater and is planning to have a new show every month. She would love to have other commercial properties come to Rivertown.

“It just needed some fresh blood. … I think there’s something invaluable about having private business owners,” Fouchi said. “Their blood, sweat and tears are in their business.”

Carroll said some of the complaints about Rivertown in the past have been off-base because he never saw the area as a drain or an anchor on the city’s finances. However, he acknowledges that Rivertown has never been an area that made Kenner money, and he thinks it’s time for that change. Carroll said growth in Rivertown and the city’s upcoming improvements at Laketown will drive Kenner’s fortunes for years to come.

“I think we’ve undertaken this task and we really believe in it,” Carroll said.

But just because the city is moving forward doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Rivertown to continue to be a place of history for Kenner residents. Heidi Glorioso manages the city’s planetarium and also unofficially oversees Rivertown in general. She said cutting the museum staff was tough, and the remaining three museums are struggling to keep their attendance high.

While finances are a challenge, another challenge is educating Kenner’s residents on what they can find in Rivertown. She said the twice-monthly farmers market and the music and movies shown in Heritage Park are great family-friendly events.

Kenner residents have to recognize they have a gem in Rivertown and take advantage of it.

“I think (people) still don’t know what’s down here,” Glorioso said. “It’s just a lack of awareness.”