'I think there's hope': Ascension Parish Council discusses lease agreement in Donaldsonville historic district

Michael Tortorich
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

Is a rebirth beginning in the Donaldsonville downtown area?

Ascension Parish Council members and parish administrators went over a presentation on leasing buildings in Donaldsonville's historic district through a cooperative endeavor agreement, laying the foundation to potentially bring the area of the city back to its bustling heyday decades ago.

Parish leaders are hoping to utilize the Lemann's Farm Supply building and neighboring properties to spur on better quality of life for west bank citizens, as discussed during the March 7 finance committee meeting in Gonzales.

As the farm supply company plans to move to a more rural area, it is feared the buildings will become vacant as others have been for years in the historic district.

Kevin Kelly, who owns Houmas House Plantation and Gardens on the east side of the Mississippi River, has been restoring the iconic B. Lemann and Bro. building. It is located across Mississippi Street at the corner of Railroad Avenue, the city's historic main street. The building was originally designed and built in the late 1870s by architect James Freret, according to the Donaldsonville Chief archive.

Three properties located along Mississippi Street in the Donaldsonville historic district have been purchased with plans to renovate and lease to Ascension Parish government.

Along with James Neville, he previously announced plans for the mixed-income, mixed-use project. It consists of 42 units of housing with 7,600 square-feet of commercial space on the ground floor. The estimated cost has been reported as $14.5 million.

In speaking to members of the finance committee, Kelly said the B. Lemann and Bro. building should be finished around May.

Regarding the farm supply building, he said the pandemic has caused delays.

"I plan to do the exact same development with the tractor supply building as I did with the B. Lemann building. It's going to be a wonderful project, but because government was shut down, we couldn't do anything," Kelly said.

He added that he suspected the building would have become vacant since broken windows from before Hurricane Ida had not been repaired.

"The building is going to be cared for. That's the dominant property. Those two are the dominant properties in Donaldsonville. It's at the foot of the river, at the corner," Kelly said.

He went on to share his frustration with undertaking such a project and having people "picking on you."

Though he chose the original paint color from 1885, he said he had people telling him the color wasn't appropriate.

"If I had followed the complaints on the rumors of people using false information, I would have walked away," Kelly said.

With the B. Lemann building renovation wrapping up, he hopes it will encourage similar projects in the area.

"Other buildings are fixing up now. I think there's hope," he said.

Ultimately, the agreement will be decided by the full council.

During the initial presentation, Bill Dawson said the mission of the project is to improve the quality of life for west bank citizens.

He pointed out median household income in Ascension Parish is $80,527 per year, according to Census data

Two Census blocks on the northern end of the parish recorded median household incomes of more than $100,000.

When asked about pressing concerns, relatively affluent citizens residing in the Prairieville and Dutchtown areas of the parish might typically be most worried about drainage and traffic issues, Dawson said. 

"On the other hand, if you had somebody whose median family income was $25,000, they'd have a different answer to that," he said.

Chief Administrative Officer John Diez echoed the sentiments by pointing to a news article showing the Prairieville Census Designated Place as the wealthiest in Louisiana. He mentioned another that ranked the Donaldsonville area low in economic categories.

"Sometimes it's hard for people living in this community to recognize that cities can be flipped. I've seen it happen in Washington, D.C. When I was in Arizona, I saw it in Junction City. Donaldsonville has a lot of problems, but it has twice the promise. It has history and it has character," Diez said.

The vision for the spaces includes a wellness center and vocational training campus. Funding would come from the health and mental health property tax, and private partnerships are also a possibility.

The parish would agree to lease the buildings for 20 years, only making an interest payment, and maintaining the right to purchase at any time. A sub lease would be granted for two years to the farm supply business until it fully relocates.

The three properties total nearly three acres with 370 feet of frontage along the river. The buildings are a combined 21,000 square feet.