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Historic charm may be key to Louisiana town’s revival

April 14, 2018

MORGANZA, La. (AP) — There was time when Inez Serio-LeCoq could buy all the items on her mother’s grocery list from any number of stores and local businesses dotting a one-mile stretch of Louisiana Highway 1 in this close-knit Pointe Coupee Parish town.

“We had every kind of store there was. We had everything we needed,” the 94-year-old woman said, reflecting on her childhood.

But that was a long time ago.

If Serio-LeCoq tried now to buy beans, coffee, spaghetti, tomato paste and many of the other basics her mother sent her and her siblings into town to fetch back when she was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, she’d be hard-pressed to find any of them.

All that remains today on the one-mile stretch are two small gas and convenient stores and a meat processing facility. Abandoned buildings with “Closed” signs posted in the front window are all that’s left of the business corridor that was once populated with an array of stores, a movie theater, two banks and even a hospital.

Serio-LeCoq’s great-great niece and son-in-law are trying to change that, working with the parish’s tourism leader to turn things around and make the La. 1 business corridor, commonly referred to by locals as Main Street, the buzzing center of activity it used to be while also retaining its historic charm.

A recent application submitted to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation seeks official recognition of the Main Street corridor as a cultural district for the town of Morganza. If approved, residents and business owners in the district would become eligible for both state historic rehabilitation tax credits and tax exemptions on the sale of original works of art.

Jeanie Andre, administrator for the parish’s Office of Tourism, is hoping the tax incentives and community events highlighting the town’s colorful history will spark local and outside interest in pushing forward with ambitious revitalization goals.

“We want to turn this into a nostalgic place; like a step back into time,” Andre said. “The town’s leaders are supporting us with this because they’re hoping it can save our little town.”

Joining Andre in the revitalization effort are Clarence “Woots” Wells, the town’s Mayor Pro-Tem, and Natalie Thompson, a Baton Rouge housewife and Serio-LeCoq’s great-great niece. Andre calls Thompson the “visionary” who got the ball rolling on the revitalization campaign.

Thompson’s family, The Serios, still own and operate one of the last remaining businesses on the La. 1 strip. Their small service station, Serio’s Service Station, has been in operation for nearly 100 years.

“This used to be the one-stop shop,” said Thompson’s grandfather, Rudy Serio. “I can remember on a Saturday afternoon you couldn’t even walk down the street because it was so busy.”

Serio’s Service Station used to be a place locals could buy gas, get their cars repaired and even buy home appliances. All that has been scaled back tremendously since cars no longer stop as often as they used to along bustling La. 1.

“I had this idea and when I first told people I would just get laughed at,” Thompson said. “but I kept sharing it until someone would bite. That led me to Mrs. Jeanie who said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’”

Thompson grew up in Baton Rouge but was constantly entertained by her mother’s and grandfather’s stories about Morganza, which helped her establish a nostalgic feel for the town during visits there as adult.

“For some reason, this past Easter when we passed through Morganza, and mom pointed out all of the special places, it meant something to me,” she said. “When we returned to Morganza a couple weeks later, we realized how much was closed down and how little was left.”

The trio will host a town hall meeting soon where Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser is scheduled to speak and answer questions regarding the revitalization effort.

Morganza is located approximately 10 1/2 miles northwest of New Roads. The town’s population was estimated at around 888 people in a 2016 U.S. Census report.

The town’s history is tied to agriculture and the railroad system, both of which sustained population growth and economic stability for decades.

The town saw its population swell some in the late 1930s with the construction of the Morganza Spillway, the mammoth flood-control structure designed to divert water from the Mississippi River during major flood events by flooding the Atchafalaya Basin.

“There were lots of folks who moved into town to do that work,” said Brian Costello, author of the book “A History of Pointe Coupee Parish.”

Costello credits the paving of the Louisiana highway system as a factor in the town’s decline.

“What happened is the same thing that happened in a lot of other communities, with paved roads people can go to Baton Rouge to shop and then you had kids going off to college and having nothing to come home to,” he said.

Andre said desegregation of parish schools in the late 1960s didn’t help. The shutdown of the local school forced many families to move to surrounding cities and communities to be closer to quality schools.

Getting cultural district recognition from the state has the potential of helping Andre and the others pump new life into Main Street.

Cheryl Castille, executive director for the Louisiana Office of Tourism’s Division of Arts, said both tax incentives associated with the program draw in outside visitors into an area to spend money and spur other economic activity.

“There have been studies after studies done that show when you begin having a grouping of arts and cultural businesses and initiatives — events that are taking place — that draws people to that certain art of town. Whether that be residents or visitors and those people come in to spend money,” she said.

Castille said the state recognizes 89 cultural districts throughout Louisiana, including the Mid City area in Baton Rouge.

“In Morganza they have some fabulous historic buildings down that main corridor,” Castille said. “For people that are wanting to put some of those buildings back into commerce, those historic tax credits can help with that. The building just needs to be at least 50 years old.”

One of the most famous buildings on the one-mile stretch no longer stands. That’s Melancon’s Cafe where scenes from the cult classic movie “Easy Rider,” starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, were filmed in 1968.

The restaurant was demolished many years ago, now all that remains is a marker embedded in the sidewalk in front of where the restaurant used to be.

“Motorcycle groups still come through and take pictures of the ‘Easy Rider’ marker,” said Wells, who owned and ran a supermarket on the La. 1 strip in town for 50 years. “I used to get tired of having to walk down here and talk about this. I was the unofficial tour guide.”

Pointing at the “Easy Rider” marker Wells quipped, “This will put Morganza back on the map.”

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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