Make your destination downtown Leesville: Where new beginnings, collaborations lead to improvements,
October 6, 2008
By ANGIE THORNE
Any fifth grade science wiz understands the concept of symbiosis: bees pollinate flowers and clown fish safely live within the stinging tentacles of sea anemone. Understanding that two separate and completely different entities can thrive if working together in a relationship of mutual benefit, isn't a difficult concept. And yet, often people are oblivious to that opportunity.
Think about Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the City of Leesville. Though these two communities have lived, grown and changed together for decades, they may not have taken full advantage of living on each other's doorsteps, so to speak. The lines of communication have always been open and grown stronger over the past few years, but there was no real focus for the two to join in a common purpose to improve life for people, both civilian and military.
That has recently changed thanks to the Army-Community Heritage Partnerships Program. A-CHPP, in conjunction with The National Trust Main Street Center, has begun an initiative to strengthen the ties (economic, historic and social) between Army installations and neighboring communities by revitalizing the city's historic downtown district.
How does that help' Like bees to flowers, people on and off base are attracted to new businesses, better services, entertainment and culture. Investing time, effort and money into Leesville's downtown benefits the city economically, while potentially improving the lives of everyone on or off base. Fort Polk is the 10th base chosen to participate in the program. Initial sites that have successfully completed the A-CHPP include West Point/downtown Highland Falls, N.Y., Fort Benning/downtown Columbus, Ga. and Fort Leavenworth, downtown Leavenworth, Kan. Fort Polk and Leesville came to the attention of the program thanks to Col. David Sage, garrison commander. He heard about the program and asked if Fort Polk could be considered for A-CHPP, said Lorna Hanes, plans specialist for the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security and A-CHPP point of contact for the installation. That seemingly small request started a snowball effect, an accomplishment in the tropical climate of Louisiana. Plans were set in motion, people motivated and meetings scheduled.
"We brought in the mayor, the tourist commission -- anybody we thought would be interested in the program," said Hanes. Once everyone from Fort Polk and Leesville agreed they wanted to pursue this goal, an introductory visit from representatives of A-CHPP and the National Trust was scheduled. That first meeting took place in February. Representatives were introduced to the Fort Polk/Leesville Heritage Partnership team already in place and given tours of downtown Leesville and Fort Polk.
The visit ended in a town hall meeting to review objectives, discuss desired outcomes in respect to the city and citizens of Leesville and encourage questions. "In all of the meetings the visiting team had with Fort Polk's military and civilian representatives and Leesville's citizens, city and parish officials and staff, it came away extremely impressed by the responsive and enlightened viewpoints that were expressed and a keen desire to participate in the program.
"The positive attitude and willingness to assist found in both the Fort Polk and Leesville communities bode well for the success of this partnership," said Teresa Lynch, senior program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Center. Lynch also mentioned that this is a community that "really knows how to entertain guests!" It just goes to show, Southern hospitality is alive and well here.
"After that preliminary visit, the assessment team asked that volunteers be split into five task force committees: marketing, heritage tourism, visual physical linkages, business development and property development. The committees are made up of volunteers from both Fort Polk and Leesville," said Hanes. The committees are always on the lookout for new volunteers. Lt. Col. Anastasia Stipe, garrison executive officer, said, "If you are interested in the development of a certain committee and are willing to give them your time and expertise in a certain area, you are welcome to join. We continue to recruit people all the time."
Each committee was given assignments including business development, compiling market research, listing downtown property availability and its potential, improving the beauty of and routes to downtown, opening new lines of communication and more. The information gathered helps A-CHPP and the National Trust provide the proper guidance and final focus for the program. "A-CHPP is special because it's not a cookie-cutter plan. Each area they have helped is different. Towns associated with the installations can be small or large. There are all kinds of ways to move forward and the only limit is our creativity and resources," said Hanes. In other words, each heritage program requires a slightly different plan.
A second meeting from the A-CHPP and National Trust representatives took place in May. "The main focus of the second visit was business and property development. They did personal interviews with downtown business owners and area politicians. They also met with the committees and were given status reports. Then the team said the committees were either on the right track or needed to head in a different direction," said Hanes.
The next step in the process involved gathering more information through a survey. The survey determined what businesses and entertainment Army Families and military retirees would like to see in downtown Leesville. Hanes and Stipe worked together with their committee to formulate the survey.
"We developed it with our little ad hoc committee by looking at how some of the previous installations had formatted theirs and what they were trying to find out. We had to keep in mind that the Army Family was our target. They are the customers for the downtown area," said Hanes. Once the survey was released they were excited about the response. "Our goal was to get 400 completed surveys. After two days, we had over 500," said Hanes. (As of Sept. 26, 788 surveys have been received). A-CHPP and the National Trust were back in the area for a third visit Oct. 1-2 with a report based on the information garnered from the second visit's interviews and the statistical analysis based on survey information.
"Because the interviews were confidential, there should be some good information. Both reports should be quite enlightening and give us a good basis for where we go next," said Hanes. The assessment team uses the information to recommend strategies. If the knowledge garnered uncovers a weakness, they bring in experts to help. Their help is tailored to what they find so that each task force can move the revitalization process forward by putting into action what they have learned, said Hanes.
If you hadn't already noticed, The Heritage Partnership Program isn't something that happens overnight. "Past programs have worked out well for Army and downtown partners, but the projects take anywhere from 18 to 24 months to complete," said Lynch. The Fort Polk/Leesville program is young yet at seven months. "Many times the people on the committees don't see the point of going through this process. They want to just jump right in and create a product. That's commendable, but the process is part of agreeing to the end product, which is a revitalized downtown. The hard part is continuing to keep people enthusiastic and excited. They have to realize the small steps are important and if you keep taking them, you'll get there," said Hanes.
On a local level, the program makes sense, but its effects may possibly be felt beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. "This serves the overall goal of Fort Polk to improve its image nationally. If we improve downtown Leesville, focus on education and all the things Vernon Parish does well, that gives us something to tell the Army and the whole United States. We can say 'Hey, this is a great place to live," said Hanes. It takes every member of the team willing to give his or her time and effort to see a project of this proportion through to a successful end, said Hanes. When they do, successfully accomplishing those goals can lead to a great deal of satisfaction. "Working on this project makes you feel good because it makes you feel like you are accomplishing something. This is a way for us to contribute to the community and make a difference for Soldiers and their Families," said Hanes.