BASTROP, La. (AP) — Jeweler Susan Plonnigs says Bastrop's downtown is vibrant, although outsiders think the city has been dying since the International Paper mill shut down in 2008.
Her downtown store, a city landmark for 27 years, has quadrupled its space in recent years. Located just off the square on Washington Street, Arnett's Jewelry still has paper charge accounts. Plonnigs knows her customers by name.
Arnett's isn't the city's only diamond in the rough, said Plonnigs: the challenge is spreading the word that Bastrop's downtown is alive and well.
"There's so many things that people don't recognize on a daily basis. We need to find a better way of letting people know what we do have," Plonnigs said. "There are still a lot of people here that do love it and will continue to be here."
However, recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show the city tied for steepest population decline of any in northeastern Louisiana. Both Bastrop and Tallulah lost 164 people from last year.
The population is now about 10,950, down more than 2,000 from its peak while the mill was open.
Morehouse Parish as a whole didn't fare much better: nearly 400 residents left since last year.
The city's business owners, Chamber of Commerce and political leaders are determined to change that. Main Street USA is alive in Bastrop, they say.
EVERYTHING BUT THE BIG CITY
Bastrop is a Main Street Community, a distinction awarded by the National Main Street Center and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The distinction makes it eligible for different types of assistance.
Main Street Director Marc Vereen has made the most of the title. The town has been working since 2000 to reinvigorate the square and nearby areas with new siding, benches, plants, sidewalks and lighting.
The iconic courthouse has been renovated and nearly every building is occupied by some type of business.
"These big cities make these town center shopping centers now. They're trying to recreate little bitty main street towns. Well, we've got the original," Vereen said.
Vereen is also the code enforcement officer. Now that the heart of Bastrop is beating again, he said, the city is looking to make its entrances more inviting.
The city must also deal with property abandoned over the last several years.
Plonnigs and Vereen believe Bastrop can satisfy most shoppers' desires and cut a half-hour each way from shopping trips for people who now drive to Monroe from extreme northeastern Louisiana and southern Arkansas.
"We offer a lot of different things here as reasonable and as good as what Monroe offers. People just need to realize that," Plonnigs said. "People need to realize every time they go out of town to shop for something it affects their police, their firefighters, their schools. We know people can't get everything here, but when you can, they need to shop locally. It would help everybody."
Sales tax numbers show the city is on pace to collect the same amount or more than it collected when International Paper was still open. The tax rate has remained the same.
"Sales tax numbers don't lie. That's telling us something's being done right in Morehouse Parish," said Dorothy Ford, executive director of the Bastrop-Morehouse Chamber of Commerce.
Ford said the chamber is working on a tourism plan to better market the city. She couldn't provide details because the plan isn't final.
STOPPING THE SLIDE
Mayor Arthur Jones knows Bastrop must give people reasons to stay in town.
He said the biggest concern is retaining young adults who are moving to find jobs. Jones said he'd love to have a big employer move in but is concentrating on bringing smaller companies to help provide jobs.
"We know we won't get anything as big as International Paper was, but even small industries, mom and pop jobs, things like that will help," Jones said.
Jones said he's working with state and federal leaders to find businesses. One success is Drax Biomass, a United Kingdom-based company which is building a $60 million to $90 million plant about 15 minutes north of Bastrop to make wood pellets that will be used for fuel. The plant will create about 50 jobs, Gov. Bobby Jindal said in 2012. It is expected to open at the end of the year.
Morehouse Economic Development Director Kay King said the plant is a great way to help fill two voids left by International Paper: the lack of jobs and the surplus of timber.
"It's a huge impact on our economy. When the mill closed, we had a surplus of timber. Now we can use that surplus," King said. "One strength of our rural area is we have a lot of raw materials, and this is finding new markets for those materials."
Jones said in addition to jobs, the city needs to improve the quality of life by investing in recreation. He said many of the city's facilities were not maintained, and he's working to return them to usable condition.
One of his first goals when he became mayor last year was opening the 450,000-gallon East Madison swimming pool, which successfully opened in July.
Now he's looking at repairing the tennis courts and attracting more restaurants.
From tourism, shopping and incoming jobs, Plonnigs believes the collective efforts of the dedicated people of Bastrop will pay off for the city. For her, the future of her home is bright.
"Bastrop has a great outlook," Plonnigs said. "We just need more people to be progressive and maintain a positive outlook instead of a negative outlook."
Information from: The News-Star, http://www.thenewsstar.com