Historic Chennault International Airport Seeks Transformation

A historic Louisiana airport might soon see a massive overhaul, thus creating thousands of new jobs over the next two decades, according to an Advocate article detailing the prospective transformation.  Louisiana officials are setting their sights on the potential transformation of Chennault International Airport and turning its two-mile runway into an economic engine for the Lake Charles region, an area that desperately needs the influx of jobs and revenue that would be generated by the airport’s proposed master plan.

The airport, which is located on the eastern edge of Lake Charles, has lived many lives over the past seventy years, and in many Louisiana circles, it’s been seen as a developmental pipedream due to the obstacles that would have to be overcome in order to transform such a large space.

Though Chennault International Airport doesn’t see any commercial flights, there has been no shortage of activity on its runway. Over the past year, Chennault has seen activity from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, military training flights, a World War II-era B-25 needing a space to be repainted, and Gov. John Bel Edwards landed in the area for an event in Lake Charles.

Since 2018 Kevin Melton, a retired Air Force colonel has operated Chennault as its airport director, and when speaking on the future of the space, Melton said, “We focus everything that we do on, not what works for us today, but: What do we think is going to work five years, 10 years, 30 years down the road? That’s what I care about, and that’s what I focus on.”

The airport is seen as both an enormous opportunity for growth, but as noted in the article by Adley Cormier, author of the local history book Lost Lake Charles, “having the longest runway between Houston and Cape Canaveral was at one point viewed more as an obstacle than an advantage.”

A lot of the excitement of the future of the space comes from an economic impact study that has been carried out for the airport by Stephen Barnes, the director of the Kathleen Blanco Public Policy Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Barnes had found that if the proposed master plan were to be implemented in full, then it could possibly generate up to 16,000 jobs either directly or indirectly across the next 20 years. In addition to the created jobs, it was estimated that full development of the master plan could also potentially lead to approximately $1 billion in tax revenue for the state and $780 million in sales tax revenue locally.

Barnes noted that implementing the full scope of the master plan would have its difficulties, but his study indicated that the public would be likely to “recoup its investment if around a third of the blueprint were carried out.” The total study carried out by Barnes operated on the assumption that about $285 million in public investment and $515 million in private dollars would be put forth toward the master plan’s implementation, and he noted that light manufacturing might be a considerable area of opportunity if approached.

Barnes remarked, “I think the biggest challenge would just be competition from other communities and other developers who are trying to compete in the same space. But I think there’s such a big upside potential that this could still turn out to be a smart investment, even if not everything comes through.”

In its lifetime, Chennault International Airport has been used as a school for fighter pilots in World War II, an Air Force base during the Cold War, an unofficial venue for drag racers, driver’s education, and much more. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that plans began to emerge for its economic development, but with the master plan for a massive overhaul of the airport starting to gain traction once again, it’s given some much-needed hope to the Lake Charles community.

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Lake Charles Theatre Bounces Back After Storms

After a particularly rough year enduring Louisiana storm weather, the city of Lake Charles has opened the doors of the famed ACTS theatre to the community, according to this article from The Advocate.

Many of Lake Charles’s cultural structures and institutions had sustained significant damage from the four natural disasters that have hit southwest Louisiana this past year. Despite much of the outside world seeing Lake Charles as a working-class town mostly comprising industrial plants and casinos, the oft-forgotten cultural structures are left behind in the conversation but not in the damages sustained.

The smaller Lake Charles theatres, though not as profitable as the industry that leads the city’s GDP, often bring a sense of community and spirit to the city’s population of roughly 80,000 people. This includes music venues, art galleries, and other performance spaces throughout the city limits for the area’s collection of zydeco musicians.

But as of Fall 2021, the arts are alive again in Lake Charles as a production of a musical, 42nd Street, has premiered in the ACTS Theatre, standing as the first play the former movie house has “put on” in over a year. Mike Ieyoub is one of the lead actors in the production of 42nd Street, and just before a recent rehearsal began for the show, he assessed damages that the theatre had sustained from Hurricane Laura and worried about the likelihood of reopening the theatre to the public. “We looked around and we didn’t think we’d get it reopened,” Ieyoub told The Advocate.

He and Kristen Harrell both play leading roles in 42nd Street, and they both commented on the audience’s excitement for the theatre’s return as well as the cast’s. They attributed the anticipation to the fact that dramatic performances in a theatre are symbolically representative of a return to normalcy for audiences, and they provide an outlet for cast members as well. Harrell said, “for a lot of us who grew up doing it, myself included, it’s like, ‘I can tap again;’ coming back together and just having fun.”

The cultural affairs director for the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Matt Young, said the following regarding the resilience of the city and its residents in light of the past years of storms: “living in Lake Charles is kind of tough these days, but I think the more that we’re able to restore our festivals and fairs and open our cultural institutions and attractions, the better chance we’re going to have of keeping our residents, and not just keeping them, but giving them a great quality of life.”

Over the past few years, Lake Charles has put in noticeable efforts to address some of the citizens’ concerns that certain neighborhoods and structures in the city have been neglected for quite some time. These efforts include the creation of the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District in the northern area of the city through the use of tax incentives. This creation of a district named after the famed Lake Charles jazz singer and pianist is an effort to spur new development in this area of the city.

Another effort supported by the city is to construct a new performing arts space, and given that the Lake Charles Little Theatre had sustained heavy storm damage recently, it will soon be demolished. Randy Partin is the former president of this once-operating theatre, as it’s the second-oldest performing group in the state, having established itself in 1926, but due to the scheduled demotion, Partin has aligned his goals with the city’s. He founded the Live Arts Venue Alliance in an effort to lobby for and support the establishment of a new performance space in the city.

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