VILLE PLATTE — What would you do if your town was named the second-poorest town in the United States?

After a USA Today story last year gave this Evangeline Parish town the unfortunate honor, some saw this as an indication that there was no coming back. Yet many of the town's leaders used this as a wake-up call to get to work.

"We thought, 'What can we do to start changing this? What can we do to make things different?'" said Renee Brown, executive director of the Evangeline Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.

The numbers painted a dreary picture. Nearly 40 percent of the town's 7,000-plus residents lived in poverty. The median household income was just over $18,000, well below half of the state's median income level of $45,000. 

Only 10.2 percent of all adults had at least a bachelor's degree. The median home value? Only $84,900. 

After the story made its rounds, Brown met with Jay Geilow and Jeanne Mouton, the co-owners of Cafe Evangeline, a restaurant built in an old bank in downtown Ville Platte at 102 W. Main St., and decided the only way they could see the city bouncing back would be to rebuild from the center out.

"Ville Platte used to have a booming, vital downtown and Main Street," Geilow said. "Businesses, restaurants, cafes, theaters — we had all kinds of things going on downtown. Then big-box stores came in and changed everything just like in other small towns."

Geilow and Brown pointed to the revitalization projects in Lafayette and Crowley as models to follow, but they didn't know where to start. That's when other community leaders began working with the Evangeline Parish Foundation to help the entire parish.

The two groups decided to get an assessment of where to start, and this brought the potential final piece of the puzzle: The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. UL students worked with Delcambre, Crowley and other Acadiana municipalities with downtown revitalization. 

"They’ve been in decline for a while, and we’re hoping to turn the tide back toward revitalizing and developing strategies for economic development to identify areas of growth," said UL professor Geoff Stewart, an endowed chair in regional business development at UL.

Students and faculty held three town hall meetings in Ville Platte to determine how to help. The partnership helps the university gain prestige when the towns turn around and become success stories. Students get experience and credit toward degrees, and the towns reap the benefits from the revitalization.

Stewart said his MBA class over the next few years — and other classes — will look at ways to revive Ville Platte's economy. They plan has three parts: revive downtown, lure industrial developments back and focus on tourism to bring visitors to Main Street and the rest of Evangeline Parish.

"It’s desperately needed," said Jacki Wyble, owner of The Wyble Collection, an antique store at 136 W. Main St. "Ville Platte is almost a dead town where people don’t come unless they have to. I think revitalizing Ville Platte is on everyone’s mind and I’m excited about all the work being done to try to accomplish that."

The efforts are welcomed along Main Street, which today features several abandoned buildings that some say give visitors the impression they're driving through another dying small town in rural America. The university also has started working with some local businesses, such as Kary's Roux and Pig Stand Bar-B-Que Sauce, with marketing efforts.

"We are just so grateful," Mayor Jennifer Vidrine said. "That is a tremendous project. We are so happy they can help us achieve our goal and vision for Ville Platte currently and in the future. We want to give people a reason to take exit 23 (off Interstate 49) to Ville Platte and see what we have to offer and experience our great culture and our great city. That is what this revitalization project will do."

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Follow Dan Boudreaux on Twitter, @dan_boudreaux