By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – The closure of another business in Olde Towne has the frustrated owners speaking out about what they claim is a lack of support from the city for all the merchants in the historic downtown area.
It’s a similar refrain from an old song, Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan says, as he reminded the merchants in Olde Towne that the city probably spends more money there than on any other particular area of the city.
Paul and Julie Juneau, owners of Artists Gallery, purchased a building two years ago on First Street and opened an art gallery that offered local, “starving” artists a chance to display their work at a very low rental price. Artists Gallery rented areas of varying sizes to local and regional artists, with the gallery owners getting a percentage of the profits.
But two years after opening, Paul Juneau said they had to shut the doors due to struggling for so long to pay the bills—something he and his wife blame in part to a lack of signage getting potential customers to Olde Towne.
“It’s the same situation in Olde Towne that it has been for years,” Paul said. “They promise signs are coming, but the holdup is blamed on the state, and two years later nothing has been done.”
Paul said he thought the city should be willing to pay for a billboard just off the Fremaux Avenue exit off Interstate 10, where the new Fremaux Town Center retail center is doing a booming business.
“There are many other communities where the city pays for a sign that promotes their historic district,” Paul said. “If the city put up a big billboard to take advantage of all the traffic coming to the Town Center, simply pointing them to Slidell’s Olde Towne historic district, it would do wonders for the business of a lot of people down here—not just about us.”
However, Drennan said the city can’t do something like that for one group of businesses, without other businesses in different regions of the city complaining.
“How do I do it for one area, but not for the businesses on Gause, or Robert Road?” he questioned. “I already hear it all the time that we do too much for the Olde Towne businesses.
“Yes, I still think it’s right for us to promote and keep alive the historic center of the city, but we already do things for Olde Towne that the rest of the city doesn’t get,” he added. “It’s frustrating to do a lot for that area, but still hear complaints that we aren’t doing enough.”
Juneau said that when they were ready to open they were told the city was about to get approval from the state to put up signs on Front Street and Fremaux Avenue that would point customers to Olde Towne.
“But here it is two years later and nothing has happened,” he said. “We kept the rent low for the artists to try and help them, but after two years we got tired of writing checks to pay the bills since the store never did enough business.”
Drennan suggested the merchants in Olde Towne should all chip in to pay for a billboard, something another longtime business owner in Olde Towne said was fair.
“It’s not the job of the city to promote Olde Towne, but they still do it in some ways trying to upgrade the area,” Pontchartrain Investment owner Andy Prude said, a statement coming from a businessman who has been among the leaders in trying to upgrade the Olde Towne area. “Sure, more signs would be nice, but it won’t make a difference for a business if they don’t have a niche they are filling, and drawing customers on their own.
“I understand it’s tough to compete with the national retailers, but many businesses have made it in Olde Towne simply because they started a business that people wanted to seek out and find,” he added.
Prude also said “I can’t say the city is not promoting Olde Towne. They sponsor events here and are continuing to seek state funds for projects, like the sidewalks that are going to be improved, and the crosswalk at Front and Fremaux.”
However, there is little argument that anything involving federal or state funds does take an extremely long time to materialize. The crosswalk at the Front and Fremaux intersection has been on the “approved” list from the state for several years, but is still projected to take a couple more years to be finished. The upgraded sidewalk program is also something that has dragged for two years and is still not completed.
Paul also said that another thing they found in opening an Olde Towne business is the fact that many locals don’t shop local—at least not at their store.
“Getting locals to shop local when they don’t know about Olde Towne, or can’t find it, has been the problem for us,” he said. “Most of our business was from tourists, and many people would come in and say they thought the store was great, but they never knew we were here.”
Artists Gallery did spend money every week to advertise in area publications and held monthly open house events with music, plus wine and cheese when artists were on hand to meet the public.
“One surprising thing to us was how little we ever saw the city council, Mayor or Art League officials ever come to our store. It almost never happened,” Paul said. “To us it just showed that the city officials really didn’t care that much about the merchants here.
“We’re sad to have to close and sell the building,” Julie said. “To us it seemed like we had no help from the city, and that was very discouraging.”
The situation of turning Olde Towne into a vibrant market area for Slidell has been a challenge for several administrations long before Drennan. A multitude of programs, organizations and special events have been created over the years to try and stimulate more interest in businesses to locate there, but an explosion of commercial growth as has been seen in other nearby small cities like Covington, Mandeville and Ocean Springs, Miss. continues to elude Slidell.