Slidell’s Olde Town slowly being reborn

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD Soda Jerk's Frank Jackson, center, Blain Hebert, second from right, and Angel Trenchard, right, wait on customers during the grand opening of the Old Town Slidell Soda Shop last month. The popular ice cream shop, swamped during Hurricane Katrina, finally opened just before Hurricane Isaac filled it with storm surge. Jackson is a co-owner of the soda shop with Morris Hawkins.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD Soda Jerk's Frank Jackson, center, Blain Hebert, second from right, and Angel Trenchard, right, wait on customers during the grand opening of the Old Town Slidell Soda Shop last month. The popular ice cream shop, swamped during Hurricane Katrina, finally opened just before Hurricane Isaac filled it with storm surge. Jackson is a co-owner of the soda shop with Morris Hawkins.

Andy Prude drove past the faded blue cinder block building on Carey Street en route to work on a daily basis, but while most people would have seen nothing but another old, blighted building, the Slidell native saw something more — Olde Towne’s past but also its future.

The building, originally built as a wooden structure before the 1900s, had certainly seen better days. For years it had housed Champagne’s, a locally owned store that sold everything from clothing to furniture, before undergoing a number of other incarnations. After Hurricane Katrina, the house attached to the back of the business was torn down, leaving the building without a back wall and open to elements.

“I kept seeing it and knew it was on the city’s list to be demolished, and then one day, I saw a ‘for sale’ sign,” Prude said.

Many people would have been put off by the building’s neglected condition, but Prude saw its potential. “I live in an old house,” he said with a shrug. “I like old stuff.”

He and his partner, Christopher Nogues, bought the building two years ago and launched an extensive renovation to the building, which now houses their business, Pontchartrain Investments.

The renovation “made us very visible,” he said, and he and Nogues like being able to host events at the building and invite clients to come watch the Mona Lisa and Moon Pie marching parade that winds through Olde Towne.

The renovation also gave a lift to an entire block of Olde Towne, said Katherine Olivier, the Main Street manager for the city of Slidell.

“You need somebody to get started,” she said. “With the rehabilitation of that building, it was major. The whole street on one side of Carey was changed.”

And now Prude has bought other nearby properties, including the old Community Feed and Seed, with plans for more renovation and economic development.

Efforts to boost Olde Towne aren’t new — they’ve been going on for decades. The city’s former central business area has been struggling with the competition posed by malls and a retail climate that stresses car traffic over foot traffic, Olivier said, a situation that’s hardly unique to Slidell.

But when Hurricane Katrina flooded most of south Slidell in 2005, Olde Towne took a heavy hit. A vital part of the area’s post-storm recovery came when city leaders decided to rebuild municipal buildings that had always been in Olde Towne instead of moving elsewhere.

The location of city government means there are plenty of people in the area to have lunch at eating establishments and to shop in stores, Olivier said. But it also had a symbolic importance that served to encourage merchants to stay. After Katrina “it was more of an imperative,” Olivier said. “We’re not going to lose the heart of our city.”

Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan also decided to pursue accreditation in Louisiana’s Main Street initiative. Slidell is now in its fourth year as a Main Street city, one of 35 in the state, and was accredited by the national Trust Main Street Center in 2010.

That signaled a commitment from the city, too, since it meant hiring Olivier to serve as manager, a requirement for the program. A local board, known as Friends of Olde Towne Slidell, oversees the program. Prude serves on the board as its economic development chair.

One advantage of the Main Street program, Olivier said, is that it offers the help of a design expert who can provide ideas for property owners who want to restore or renovate old buildings. Prude received that help in the renovation of his business.

Slidell’s Olde Towne is also within a designated Culture District, which is determined by the state’s Division of Historic Preservation, and that allows property owners to get tax credits for renovation or restoration work. That’s also something Prude used in rehabbing his building.

Olde Towne still faces challenges. Advocates of the area point to Hurricane Isaac, which caused some buildings to flood. Friends of Olde Towne Slidell board member Sonya Soniat said that storm resulted in the loss of some longtime merchants and has been a discouragement to new investment.

Dudley Smith Printing is moving out of Olde Towne, several merchants said, and Eric and Mary DuBuisson, who transformed their cleaning business into a gallery after Katrina, put their building up for sale.

But Frank Jackson, whose iconic Old Town Slidell Soda Shop was shuttered for nearly seven years after Katrina, was not deterred even though he had just reopened on Aug. 1 and was flooded by Isaac less than a month later. He reopened within five days, although he said business was off for some time, with reports of flooding making customers assume — wrongly — that Olde Towne was closed for business.

Beyond the specter of Isaac, Prude sees gaps in Olde Towne, with some pockets of success and other areas that need a boost. He and others point to the success of a row of antiques shops on First Street, and the possibility of replicating such clusters, possibly by sharing space for “businesses that want to give it a shot.’’ Costs are lower in Olde Towne, too, compared with more highly trafficked strip malls, he said.

That was a draw for artist Joel Geiger, who just opened his metal art business, I.D.eel Design, on Carey Street this month.

“I just love Olde Towne,’’ said Geiger, also a Slidell native. “If I could afford to have a gallery in the French Quarter, I probably would, but you have to start somewhere.’’

Olivier points to Prude and other new arrivals in Olde Towne, like chef Christopher Case of Christopher’s on Carey, as part of a wave of young, energized business owners in Olde Towne.

For his part, Prude certainly has ideas: he’s hoping the city will approve a bike rack design he has in mind to promote bicycle traffic in the area. He wants to see a coffee shop and a pizza place. And he’s eager to recruit others. A local lawyer bought a house and is renovating it for her offices. “I don’t think she would have done it if I hadn’t talked her into it,’’ he said.

Some cities have transformed their dying centers, he said, while others have failed. “We’re in the middle,’’ he said.

To succeed, he said, “we need to become a destination. That’s what Olde Towne can be.’’