The disinvestment in Lafayette’s north side dates back 40 years. It’s meant substandard homes, empty businesses and a decline in the standard of living.

Four men involved with Pride Opportunity Developers hope to reverse that trend. Riding the wave of national momentum of Opportunity Zones, the four have significant plans to enhance the area along the Evangeline Thruway just south of Interstate 10. Plans call for 85 new housing units, a mixed-use development at the old Pride Plaza Medical building, a 90-unit hotel/convention center and converting the former Walmart Supercenter into an indoor hemp facility.

The group is seeking investors for their projects with the point of investing in a section of the city that hasn’t seen significant investment in decades. It will also host the Northfest of Ideas at 9 a.m. Wednesday at The Garden Plaza Hotel & Conference Center, 2032 NE Evangeline Thruway. The event will focus on planning in north Lafayette and feature local elected officials and other leaders.

The $20 million in projects are part of an ambitious vision for the north side, one that might take changing the way many people think about Lafayette’s north side — an area where the median household income is less than $30,000.

“It sounds good to me,” said Corey Frank, president of the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce. “The men they have on board, they’re really good. We’ll definitely need our government’s support, community leaders and the churches. This would bring more jobs and increase the employment rate.”

It’s the Opportunity Zone concept that’s going to drive this dream to a reality. The area falls in U.S. Census tract 11,  among the seven tracts in Lafayette designated as Opportunity Zones, which offer tax incentives to companies and individuals willing to invest in a distressed area.

Part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the measure encourages investors with capital gains to reinvest funds into these areas. Other Opportunity Zones in Lafayette include the Oil Center, the University Avenue corridor, downtown and the industrial park on Pont Des Mouton Road.

“We saw that and were like, ‘Wow, they’re speaking to our community,’” said Ravis Martinez, the group’s chief operating officer and senior strategist. “We knew Lafayette and knew our community. We would hit on all those (requirements) with the unemployment rate and overall poverty, health and education.

“We work here. We live here. We’re all about really trying to build where we are.”

Said One Acadiana CEO Troy Wayman: “I applaud them for being ambitious and working to make something happen. The Walmart building is something that’s very unique. We would love to see something happen in that facility. It would be beneficial for that area and the entire community.”

The 228,000-square-foot former Walmart store, 1229 NE Evangeline Thruway, has sat vacant since the company closed it in March, but Pride officials have been in contact with the retailer. They’ve been inside and can envision what it could be: an indoor facility for the cultivation and processing of hemp.

The building could be home to 200 jobs, said POD President and COO John Ford, and support another 300 ancillary jobs. With a price tag of $6 million, it may seem the most visible of the four projects, but it’s one that would help farmers in the region and across Louisiana.

“We’re anticipating to be able to grow 200,000 plants a season,” said Ford, who was project developer for the Villas at Angel Point, a senior living complex at 323 Patterson St. “That’s how huge and exciting this whole POD venture and outreach to this community is. We want the community to get excited. We have farmers coming from all over the state" on Wednesday.

The business would result from sweeping changes in marijuana and hemp laws in Louisiana and the country. The 2018 federal farm bill removed industrial hemp from regulation under the Controlled Substances Act, according to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, and a section of the bill provides for the commercial production of industrial hemp.

Hemp growers can participate in federal farm programs just as they would with other crops.

This gives opportunities to black farmers in Acadiana and statewide, said POD Chief Financial Officer Royal Hill, whose group also includes Peter Williams, a senior agricultural and hemp program development consultant.

“This is an opportunity to have an injection of a new cash crop that the black farmer can gravitate to in a constructive manner utilizing our platform,” Hill said. “We don’t know how well hemp is going to grow here. We don’t know because Louisiana hasn’t grown its crop yet. We know this region is prime for anything you put into the ground.”

The POD Group wants to offer more affordable housing options in that area and is targeting a section just southwest of the I-10/Evangeline Thruway interchange. The first phase would include 60 affordable units that are 750 to 800 square feet, and the second phase would include 25 single-family homes that are 1,300 square feet. Cost would total $5 million.

Developers want to offer financial literacy classes to residents to keep them in their homes, Martinez said.

“What we have now is a blighted community of housing that is substandard,” Ford said. “We’re trying to develop housing that is affordable for these individuals so they won’t become displaced. Gentrification is not an option. We have to be creative and redesign this community based on its actual needs.”

The group also wants to redevelop Pride Plaza, 850 N. Pierce St., to include some retail spaces along with condominiums just to the south of the building. The building is the former home of the Pride Plaza Pharmacy, founded by longtime doctor Ernest Kinchen as one of the first multi-specialty medical facilities on Lafayette’s north side.

The hotel and convention center project will be at the site of the old Royal Inn hotel, 1801 NW Evangeline Thruway, and will be a Creole hotel and convention center that could also serve as a state welcome center. Plans call for a possible restaurant in the building, which would be designed with a Creole theme that could tell the story of the Creoles in Louisiana.

“This is the gateway (to Lafayette),” Martinez said. “This is the entrance to our city. I am Creole. There’s a Creole culture here, and no one is telling our story. Why not Lafayette? Why not Acadiana where you have the largest percentage of Creoles and African Americans and Catholics in the world?”

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