Next big little town?
Baton Rouge commuters first identified St. Francisville as the preferable place to experience the ebb and flow of small town life instead of the Capitol City’s push and shove. Others found their city on the hill to be closer in places with names like Beauregard Town, or Spanish Town, even Breaux Bridge.
Where will the next generation of budding country squires, hipsters, young families, artists and professionals find the practical-arty-down-home- wrapped-up-in-a bargain-place to live and work?
Some say “go west.” The under-utilized west bank of Ascension Parish, that is.
Ladies and gentlemen, I offer Donaldsonville.
Before you rush off to your GoogleMap app, let me give you the details: Donaldsonville is about thirty-five miles away from Baton Rouge. By comparison, St. Francisville is thirty-two miles, Livingston, thirty-four, and Watson, twenty-four miles. Breaux Bridge is forty-eight miles, but it’s closer to Lafayette. On the surface, Donaldsonville appears to be the ideal homestead location for the semi-urban Internet professional who does business in the river metropolises.
Donaldsonville is a great place to be if you can forgo/embrace the alleged curse Father Francis Xavier Ceuppens laid on this quiet river burg 129 years ago. More on the curse later.
Added commuter benefit: there are several routes to D-ville. Yes, of course you can drive bumper-to-bumper on the overused Interstate 10 mess, braving its threat of Carmageddon—or you can motor leisurely along historic LA Highway 1, the longest Main Street in America.
Imagine driving through the heart of historic river communities (Plaquemine, White Castle, Bayou Goula) and observing their unique river culture from the comfort of your automobile. There is a book about LA 1 (Louisiana Hwy. 1, by Anne Butler)—no one writes books about I-10.
The town features plenty of historic homes, replete with touches of the antebellum, French Quarter ironwork, gingerbread and other architectural details, at affordable prices. Prime Railroad Avenue commercial space for shops, restaurants and professional offices are also available and subject to numerous incentives and tax credits due to the town’s classification as a “Main Street Community” and locations within the Historic District.
Some believe that East Bank Ascension Parish communities have finished expanding to the river and it won’t be long before cheap land and economic opportunity and investment money travels across the Sunshine Bridge into Donaldsonville.
Donaldsonville Downtown Development District Director Missy Jandura, is excited about the town’s prospects.
“We’ve had six new businesses open in the last year. My generation loves the town and the old district’s vibe,” notes the thirty-something Jandura, “and with the job market the way it is now, it’s worth a gamble for my generation to open the salons and antique stores. It’s worth it to us.”
The town has a good cultural foundation. Folk artist Alvin Batiste has been painting happily at Framer Dave’s studio on Mississippi Street, and the River Road African Museum has embraced black history and culture in Donaldsonville since 1994. Culinary arts prevail as Chef John Folse used tax incentives to locate his food production facility in the town’s industrial park, and the Grapevine Restaurant has become a destination restaurant for epicureans. Finally, a new brick-paved river walk illuminated with decorative light posts and equipped with park benches was recently completed and provides a contemplative overlook of the Mississippi River.
Leon Steele, who works with the Main Street program, believes Donaldsonville could be the next big thing.
“It’s a community ripe for an infusion/invasion of creative and entrepreneurial folks,” Steele said. “It’s more like a neighborhood than a town. It could be a great retirement community and as quirky and artsy as Eureka Springs, Arkansas.”
Donaldsonville, especially the Historic District, retains much of its nineteenth-century charm despite shelling from gunboats under the command of Admiral David Farragut. It seems Rebel snipers and hidden artillery units were taking too many potshots at Yankee sailors.
The end of Reconstruction in 1876 brings us to the misunderstanding between the town and Father Ceuppens, which led to the alleged curse on Donaldsonville.
Father Ceuppens, a Belgian, arrived in town in 1872 and began planning the third and present Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church. The church cornerstone was laid in 1876, but construction was slow and finally halted for eight years as contractors waited for delivery of stone columns from Europe.
One source told me that the townspeople accused the Belgian priest of theft and ran him out on a rail, but not before Father Ceuppens doomed the town to minor status with his curse.
Evidence of the curse was demonstrated when the long-awaited columns finally arrived, but were then lost in the Mississippi River as they were being unloaded.
No one was thinking about the curse when town officials procured a $15 million replica of Le Pelican, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville’s 16th century warship, at a bargain basement price. The ship was to become a tourist attraction on the banks of the Mississippi at the site of Fort Butler, a Civil War Union stronghold.
Le Pelican, docked in the Mississippi at Donaldsonville, sunk not once, but twice in a two-year span between 2002 and 2004. Even after the boat was scuttled out of sight, its main mast speared the fuel tanks of a passing barge, temporarily shutting down river traffic and putting D-ville back in the news under the “dubious achievement” heading.
Maybe it’s time for good things to happen to Donaldsonville.
Donaldsonville Chief Editor Deron Talley believes so.
Talley cites the $2.1 billion expansion of CF Industries’ physical plant. The expansion is set to bring in more than ninety-three direct jobs with an average annual salary of $56,500, plus benefits, and keep the 349 existing jobs and 250 contractor jobs in Donaldsonville while other indirect jobs are created.
The $750 million Nucor Steel Louisiana will soon open its doors in the downriver community of Convent, and those new employees will be looking for schools, restaurants, doctors and grocery stores to supply their needs.
It all means speculators are sure to gobble up the real estate and entrepreneurial opportunities very quickly.
Talley said there are other intangible opportunities for young people like himself.
“I had the opportunity to become the editor of the Donaldsonville Chief at twenty-two years old,” Talley said. “The town fathers will listen to young people and they want young people to move in.”
Talley was also able to find a house (not an apartment) that was affordable for a young, single adult to rent.
One final note, the Ascension Church of Our Lord’s website says that the messy business matters between the Arch-Diocese of New Orleans (represented by Father Ceuppens) and the Board of Wardens (represented by the town’s parishioners) was settled in favor of the town.
Jandura said the columns were eventually recovered from the Mississippi’s muddy waters and used inside the church.
So curses be damned, Donaldsonville lives!