St. Tammany officials plan arts district

In an ambitious plan that could cost millions and take years to complete, St. Tammany Parish officials are working with a private developer to transform a 75-acre tract just north of Interstate 12 into an arts district that would include a performing arts center, a children’s museum, walking trails and a full-service hotel and upscale restaurant.

The $50 million project is the brainchild of Parish President Pat Brister and developer Bruce Wainer, who is donating the land on Pinnacle Parkway just west of the Tchefuncte River. The parish hopes to secure public funds to develop the infrastructure and build the performing arts center. Meanwhile, Wainer will retain ownership of two outparcels: one to build a full-service hotel adjacent to the performing arts center and another to build an upscale restaurant near the center.

Brister acknowledged that the plan was ambitious, but said residents are anxious for more cultural offerings close to home.

“We are growing up,” she said. “I have no doubt that the parish is ready for this.”

Though the plans are relatively new, Brister said the idea has been around for nearly a decade and wouldn’t have been possible without Wainer, who has agreed to donate the land for the site.

The centerpiece of the development is the performing arts center. An auditorium with 2,200 seats is the tentative plan, but both Wainer and Brister stressed that could change, based on a study of the parish’s demographics.

The St. Tammany Children’s Museum, which has been in the works since 2003 and was originally planned for a site off of Koop Drive, also has agreed to locate on the site. Lisa Barnett, president of the board of trustees, said the museum will likely cost around $12 million and open in 2016 or 2017. As part of the project, a raised boardwalk is planned from the museum down to the banks of the Tchefuncte River.

“We want the museum to showcase the natural element,” Barnett said.

For Wainer, the site off of Pinnacle Parkway and bordered on the east by the Tchefuncte River was a logical spot. It’s part of a larger area, bounded by the river, Covington to the north, La. 1077 to the west and Madisonville to the south.

“We lose people to New Orleans for entertainment,” he said. “The whole goal is to keep them in the parish.”

Wainer, whose business, Wainer Companies, is based in Metairie, has been the president of the Tammany Trace Foundation for two decades, and a large number of his development projects are in the I-12 corridor.

In preparation for the project, Brister and other parish officials went to Lincoln Center in New York City late last year to consult with officials there. When they got there, they saw children lined up to hear Wynton Marsalis, which hammered home St. Tammany’s need for a place to showcase local and national talent.

“We have so many local musicians,” she said.

One other benefit of the trip was seeing how the Lincoln Center was able to adapt different performance spaces for different events, she said. That flexibility will be key in the planned performing arts center, which Brister hopes will host everything from jazz band performances to school graduations to large theatrical productions.

The school graduations could be especially key. Currently five high schools on the western side of the parish conduct their graduations in Hammond. Brister hopes this center will remove the need for those ceremonies to leave the parish.

So far, the parish has applied for $5.5 million in Community Development Block Grant money to build the infrastructure for the project. If approved, the parish will break ground next year.

Brister also plans to ask the Legislature for state money, and will attempt to raise private funds as well.

To the latter end, Wainer has spoken to several people about possibly purchasing the naming rights for the performing arts center. He declined to say with whom he has spoken.

Brister said the potential payoff of the project won’t just be cultural, but also economic.

Projections have the cultural arts district creating about 100 permanent new jobs, she said.

“This is the one piece of the puzzle that St. Tammany has been lacking,” Brister said. “This is proactive, this is the future.”