DONALDSONVILLE — A $1 million renovation of a 200-year-old park in the heart of Donaldsonville will make it the future home of regional festivals — like the Rural Roots of Jazz Fest.
City officials envision Rural Roots as opening each year on the Thursday before the famous, two-weekend New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“Much of jazz was born right in Donaldsonville,” said Lee Melancon, executive director of the Donaldsonville Downtown Development District.
Jazz band leader and Donaldsonville native Claiborne Williams was a musical leading light of the 1930s and 1940s, and local musician Joe “King” Oliver was a mentor to Louis Armstrong.
Bayou tours, anyone? They’re being planned, too.
The sleepy little town of Donaldsonville, with the third largest historic district in the state after New Orleans and Natchitoches, is waking up.
“There is a complete economic revitalization process taking place right now,” Melancon said.
GONZALES — They shoulda done it 30 years ago when they had the chance.
A cooperative effort of the Downtown Development District and the local Chamber of Commerce is bringing the city’s past alive.
“Donaldsonville’s most precious asset is her history,” Melancon said.
Private investors are getting involved, too.
David and Lydia Hambrick have turned a two-story building that once housed a clothing store into a 16-room hotel, the Inn on the River.
Within walking distance of Crescent Park and across from the levee, the Netter Building was built by the Netter family in 1911 as a clothing store.
The store burned before it could open — fortunately, the merchandise wasn’t inside — but it was rebuilt and billed as the building that couldn’t burn, with 17-inch brick walls, David Hambrick said.
Later, the building was home to Gaston’s, a men’s clothing store opened after World War II by Holocaust survivor Gaston Hirsch, a much-beloved figure in the city.
“I have a 91-year-old friend who rode here on the ferry to get his suit for his wedding” when he was a young man, Hambrick said.
The pub at the Inn on the River is called Gaston’s.
The Hambricks also have purchased a building next to the Inn, a former bank building, that they intend to open in the future as a steakhouse.
In addition to new musical events in the city once the Crescent Park reopens in the fall — the grand opening, planned for Oct. 8, will coincide with free public tours of local historic places — the city is looking at using a natural resource, Bayou Lafourche, as a new draw for visitors as well.
The bayou that runs through the city to near the levee — which is near the site where the Civil War’s Fort Butler, built by the Union but taken by the Confederacy, once stood — will be the waterway for historic boat tours planned for sometime in the future that will bring visitors past the Palo Alto, St. Emma and Belle Alliance plantations in Ascension Parish and Madewood Plantation in neighboring Assumption Parish, Melancon said.
Melancon said improvements planned by Union Pacific Railroad, which has a track over the bayou, will improve travel for the boat tours Donaldsonville hopes to offer.
The renovations at Crescent Park, located on Mississippi Street facing the levee, will create an amphitheater and staging area, and provide water and power access. The approximately $1 million cost of the project is being funded largely by state capital outlay funds, Melancon said. The SJB Group of Baton Rouge is the architect.
Alongside the Rural Roots of Jazz Fest will be Donaldsonville Downtown Live, similar to the popular “Live after Five” outdoor concerts in Baton Rouge in the fall and spring, Melancon said.
On July 17 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., the River Road African American Museum, at 406 Charles St., in Donaldsonville, will hold a free Rural Roots of Jazz concert to honor Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Bartholomew.
The songwriter, producer and horn player, now 95, was born in the river town of Edgard and spent some of his teenage years in Donaldsonville, under the music tutorship of Claiborne Williams.
In the future, Donaldsonville also will see Midnight Garden Parties, musical events that will pay tribute to the so-named social gatherings and “coming out” parties that slaves held late at night, in the face of danger, in the pre-Civil War years, Melancon said.
Renovations in Crescent Park have forced Donaldsonville officials to change its annual Indep…
As work progresses on the park, a walkway on the levee top is being extended as well.
“It’s part of the master plan that we have for the riverfront development,” said Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan.
Juanita Pearley, executive director of the Donaldsonville Chamber of Commerce, said the riverfront and park are a gathering place for residents and visitors.
“People can socialize and gather at the park and walk on the river walk,” she said. “It’s beautiful lit up at night.”
“The people walk there, exercise, sit and just be there,” she said.