A Louisiana town fights for a future rooted in art, history and culture
MAIN STREET HOMER RECEIVES A $25,000 GRANT FROM "A COMMUNITY THRIVES" TO OPEN AN ARTS CENTER AND CREATE A CULTURAL DISTRICT IN DOWNTOWN HOMER, LOUISIANA.
Tiana Kennell, Shreveport Times
Published 12:21 p.m. CT July 12, 2018 | Updated 10:37 p.m. CT July 13, 2018
HOMER, Louisiana — An antebellum courthouse, constructed in 1860, stands tall in the center of the Main Street Square in downtown Homer. It reflects the grandeur once exhibited here.
Homer has changed dramatically since then, leaving residents to seek ways to revitalize the rural town on a foundation of art and small businesses — far from its roots as a farming hub, then an oil and timber town.
A $25,000 grant from A Community Thrives, a social impact program of Gannett/USA Today Network was awarded to Homer.Henrietta Wildsmith, David D'Aquin and Caitlin Jacob
Now comes a $25,000 grant from A Community Thrives, a social impact program of Gannett/USA Today Network, to assist in revitalizing Homer, starting in the heart of its downtown.
An organization, Main Street Homer, will invest in Homer’s arts community and take steps to restore the history and culture of the town. The ACT grant will be used to create an arts center with affordable studio spaces for artists and classrooms for the community to learn their artistry.
“Our mission is to revitalize downtown Homer through economic and cultural development and advancement of the arts and historic preservation,” said treasurer April Hand. “This grant is going to help us create a center for the arts which is key to our economic revitalization.”
Homer once flourished as a farming community, a community that relied economically on cotton growers and sharecroppers. Then, in the early 1900s, the oil industry drove the local economy.
Now the town fights to attract more than travelers cutting by on U.S. Route 79 on their way to other cities and tourist attractions.
The town’s population has declined — now about 3,000 — over the years as younger generations leave for education or jobs in larger cities, said Linda Volentine, project director at the Herbert S. Ford Memorial Museum on Main Street.
Today, timber is the leading industry in Claiborne Parish, but there still are few opportunities for residents, said Pat Abshire, executive director of the Claiborne Chamber of Commerce.
“The timber industry is kind of struggling and even with oil being pretty stable right now, in the 1920s and '30s is when these towns were really huge with thousands and thousands of people living here,” he said.
Homer continues to compete with neighboring towns and larger cities with more to offer — from employment to wider and cheaper retail options. It’s a problem many small towns across the U.S. share, Abshire said.
It’s also the leading reason for the founding of Main Street Homer four years ago with the mission to strengthen Main Street businesses and make Homer both an attractive visitor destination and place people will want to call home.
How the plan came together...
Homer is tucked away in Claiborne Parish, about an hour's drive northeast of Shreveport. It has the potential for a thriving arts community, April Hand said.
“Homer is a charming community filled with very warm and wonderful people that has a lot of hidden assets and jewels that are ready to be shared with the rest of the world,” she said.
Homer is April Hand's hometown. Ten years ago, she and her husband, Jimmy Hand, moved to Homer from Austin and became devoted to driving Main Street Homer's pursuits forward. Jimmy Hand is the Executive Director for Main Street Homer.
Since its founding, Main Street Homer has led economic and cultural development work in the town, supported historic preservation and driven an advancement of the arts. Two years ago, it developed a cultural district in the historic downtown square.
“That provides artists the opportunity to sell their original works of art for a reduced tax rate,” Jimmy Hand said. “It’ll be an incentive for more people to come purchase their art and become more of a business incubator for our artists.”
Main Street Homer, the grant recipient, will invest in HomerÕs arts community and make steps to restore the history and culture of the town. The ACT grant will be used to create an arts center with affordable studio spaces for artists and classrooms for the community to learn their artistry.
The arts center will be housed in the renovated second floor of the historic three-story Mason’s Building, built in 1925. A Community Thrives funding will allow organizers to bring update bathrooms and bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including adding an elevator.
The large, open rooms surrounding the building’s grand, wooden staircase once served as business offices. They’ve since become worn with age. The renovations will repair the damage and provide an upgrade in décor.
Blacksmith Mike Hall talks about his studio in Homer, La.Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times
The arts center will serve as an incubator providing the resources and support that local artists need to turn their crafts into a viable business and sources of income.
“We need to encourage artists in Homer and give them a place to work,” said woodworker David Hood. “Some people don’t have room, like myself, an amateur. You work in your garage or a spare room.”
Hood carves statues, figurines and furniture, working out of his home just outside of the downtown district.
So, he was on board when Christina Gladney, director of the Homer Cultural District, approached Hood and his Freemasonry brethren with her idea to re-purpose the second floor of their building as an arts center.
“I felt like it would be a good move for us as a way of community support to just donate the use of that space to the arts center,” Hood said. “We thought it would be for the good of the community to donate the use of the building to promote the arts.”
Gladney also is an artist. She specializes in jewelry and stained glass-making and plays music. In the past, she and her band mates used a room in the Masons' building as rehearsal space. She knew firsthand the potential of the space for other artists.
Christina Gladney is the director of Homer Cultural District and owner and artist of The Mermaid Closet.
She approached Main Street Homer about applying for the ACT grant, as well. She envisioned an arts center that would serve as a common meeting place for artists.
“I would love a thriving community of artists here,” Gladney said. “We really do have the artists, but we don’t have the community yet because many of us work in isolation in our home, in our own pursuits, learning on our own.”
The arts center will build a community of artists where they can learn from and support each other, she said. And it will drive opportunities for artists to sell the works and become entrepreneurs.
Artists will pay $25 per month for a studio, with the option of lower or free rent if they teach classes at the center for children and adults.
“We hope children in our community will benefit because art education has been cut to the bone. There’s just no money for it, unfortunately,” Gladney said. “But we feel that art is essential to education and so we hope to provide a place for our local children to learn art.”
Homer downtown square has lots of potential. Main Street Homer’s work includes restoring the physical aesthetics of downtown and making it attractive for residents and business owners.
“If you look around our square, you’ll see these beautiful, old buildings," April Hand said. "Many of them are empty and coming into disrepair."
She said the goal is to restore and refill buildings and, thus, to encourage people to "enjoy being downtown again.”
A $25,000 grant from A Community Thrives, a social impact program headed by Gannett/USA Today Network, will assist in the efforts to revitalize the beauty, life and economic growth in the heart of downtown Homer.
Fourteen out of the 27 potential retail storefronts in the downtown district are empty, Jimmy Hand said.
“The town square is the heart of our unity,” Gladney said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of population over the decades and businesses and families that once built these spaces. These buildings are now empty. We need to think of new uses and new ways to use our old buildings. We don’t want them to just fall down and disappear.”
Main Street Homer received funding, separate from the ACT grant, to produce a greenspace one block off Main Street. The park will serve as a venue for art shows, concerts, festivals, picnics and more.
Previously, community events were staged on the small lawn space in front of the town’s courthouse in the square.
Main Street Homer also has purchased nearby, vacant storefronts to transform into indoor restrooms and for other uses related to the park and district.
And the group’s leaders continue to work with new and existing business owners to restore and invest in renovating the district’s other historic buildings, Jimmy Hand said.
By investing in the district, its artists and businesses, Main Street Homer leaders hope to attract new visitors and residents, triggering an increase in the local economy.
“Homer is open for business,” Jimmy Hand said. “Homer is ready to pop, and we’re ready to make that happen.”
The Town of Homer Business office is open to the public Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. A drop box is available to customers for after-hours payments.400 East Main Street Homer, LA 71040 Phone: (318) 927-3555 Fax: (318) 927-3399 firstname.lastname@example.org Emergencies Call 9-1-1