Faces of Change: African American Chamber of Commerce – North Lake Charles Redevelopment

Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 6:06 PM CST
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This month, KPLC is celebrating Black History Month with an exclusive series called “Faces of Change.”

All month long, we’ll be sharing the stories of those making changes - seen and unseen - who live and work right here in our own communities – all while celebrating the past, present and future of Black History in Southwest Louisiana.

Lake Charles, LA (KPLC) - Yolanda Babineaux grew up in North Lake Charles and currently works at popular community staple Lynn’s Seafood.

Babineaux helps take care of her father who resides in the North Lake Charles community. Nearly 18 months later, she says many parts of that side of town still look and feel the way it did after Hurricane Laura hit.

“We’re looking at (my dad’s) back yard. He used to have a shop and if you look at it, it still has some cars underneath. Well, it’s not underneath nothing anymore. But, yeah, he still has that that needs to be re-done.”

“For me, my dad was very lucky that that’s all that happened compared to a lot of other people that lost homes,” Babineaux said. “He only lost a shop, so, for him everything’s fine. For other people, not so much.”

The African American Chamber of Commerce of Lake Charles is hoping to shift the narrative surrounding North Lake Charles to include conversations surrounding future investment opportunities for those living and working within the community.

“We’ve been through hurricanes, we’ve been through ice storm, we’ve been through flood, we’ve been through pandemic and in our community, I see people struggling,” said Ellaweena Woods.

Woods serves as secretary of the African American Chambers of Commerce of Lake Charles (AACCLC), an organization that was established in 1993 with the goal of uniting the Black business community of Lake Charles.

“We’ve missed over half a billion dollars in contracts, federal contracts, state contracts that have came here that not one person in North Lake Charles have gotten a nickel of that money,” said Fitzgerald Darbone. “We’re just trying to make sure that we have a presence now when it comes to the opportunity that’s being available.”

Darbone took over leadership of the organization in 2019. With an organizational shift and multiple natural disasters, many of the AACCLC’s programs faced setbacks. However, the organization is ready to embark on a new path.

“There’s money that’s coming into Lake Charles, and we want a seat at the table. We want to be able to see what is coming to Lake Charles and how can that money be used in our area,” said Woods. “We’re concerned about economic development and also concerned about quality of life and infrastructure.”

Towards the end of 2021, the organization sponsored a pair of yard signs strategically placed throughout the North Lake Charles Community that portrayed the phase “Invest In Your Community” in hopes of inspiring North Lake Charles residents to take back their community.

“Being involved in your community is the only way that you’re going to grow your own community without having handouts. I mean exactly what the sign says. Invest In Your Community,” said Darbone.

Currently, the North Lake Charles economy is surviving with the help of several businesses like Ray’s Laundromat and Dry Cleaners.

“I am Kyle Bertrand, owner of Ray’s Laundromat and Dry Cleaners. We’ve been in the North Lake Charles community for close to six years now. We do dry cleaning, we do laundromat. We felt there was a need for that kind of service to be provided back here in this neighborhood. No one was doing it. So, we thought we’d give it a shot.”

Bertrand, whose family owns laundromats in North Lake Charles and Jennings said he’s proud that his business can serve as a convenience and as a communal grounds for residents - something that North Lake Charles residents don’t have a lot of.

“We knew that a lot of the myths you have about this neighborhood being a bad neighborhood was not true. One of the problems in this area is lack of housing. There was a lot of rent houses, homes, apartments that were destroyed that haven’t been rebuilt. They’ve been very slow to rebuild and it’s hurting the community because we’ve lost some population and we need to get that back,” said Bertrand. “I think it’s a responsibility of any investor who has money that they want to invest that they want to see return on to investigate this part of town.”

Zackary White, another local business owner who grew up in the community says the area is a far cry from what it used to be.

“My name is Zackary White and I represent Tire World and I’ve been in this community since I was a kid. Instead of me going branch off my business somewhere else, I wanted to bring it to my community and help my community out.”

“When I was a kid, you’d see a lot of business going on around here and now since the storms came and took a lot of our businesses away and it doesn’t look like it’s growing anymore,” said White.

White, who inherited the shop located on Moeling Street said that his true calling is in helping others and believes most people who do business with him thrive off the friendly service that he and his staff provide.

He says in order for the area to truly thrive, more local business owners will have to unite for a common cause.

“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility. If we all come together as one, I think we could bring the community back to where it should be and what it’s supposed to be.”

“Things that we need in the community that we don’t have and things that we’re trying to strive to get in the community like a better grocery store in this area. Like this guy across the street here that had Triplett’s, he’s about to build another grocery store there and I think that would be a big help in the community.”

Retired businessman Michael Brown said the area has fought the same fight for years.

“We’re doing the best that we can with the little that we have. The problem is that we just need to get our fair share, that’s all.”

“We’re doing the best that we can with what we got, and we ain’t got that much,” said Brown. “With this virus and the other different things that’s going on, it’s really not affecting us. I mean we’re losing lives but as far as businesses making money, it really doesn’t bother us because we weren’t making anything anyway.”

“These are the things that we deal with. Fairness is not here. We know that but we still got to live and make the best of what we got,” said Brown.

Darbone says the AACCLC is actively working to partner with community leaders, business owners, educators and citizens to develop an economic blueprint to help bring strategic investments to North Lake Charles.

“I’ve had people talking about they want a grocery store, they want this, they want that. Okay, so how do you do it?” said Darbone. “Do you just wait for a big box store to come into your neighborhood or do you take the initiative in investing in your own community.”

“That’s what this is mainly about - getting people to look at their community as an opportunity for them to get involved with the community.”

Yolanda Babineaux said she’s optimistic about the future of North Lake Charles.

“That saying, nothing changes if nothing changes - well nothing’s going to change if you don’t help it change,” said Babineaux. “Business aren’t just going to come about if you don’t put an effort into getting them to come here and I don’t feel like we have a lot of the right people that are going to put those businesses here.”

“If the people that live here and the people that came from here don’t help it come back, I don’t feel like it’s going to come back. I don’t. I feel like it’s going to still be the same way because it looks worse now than it did when I was a kid and that’s sad. That is really sad.”

LaRoc, a local rapper and North Lake Charles resident says he wish there were more entertainment and recreational venues in the area.

“They assume it’s the ghetto, the hood and that’s not what it is. It’s just we’re living in the hard times. They don’t really care; I believe but I could be wrong,” he said.

“I want to see some change around here. Most people around here can’t afford to go to the south side. It makes it harder, and the kids have to go through harder times because they don’t have any options are a lot of chances like the other side of Lake Charles has to go to fun places or have fun.”

“We have people in the community that’s making changes. It’s just hard because we need more support from our own people to really do what we need to do to get it right, I believe.”

With the help of their “Invest In Your Community” signs, the AACCLC hopes that it at least inspires residents or investors to learn more about the area and all it has to offer.

“Our sign says it all! We have to invest in our community. We have to build it; we have to clean it up and we have to let other people outside see that we care about our community and that we’re investing our dollars,” said Darbone. “We have to start looking outside the box on how we get our community back. We need to unify first of all as a community as a culture.”

“And we’ve been down but we can get up, we can get up. We don’t have to stay down; we can get up again,” said Woods.

To learn more about the African American Chamber of Commerce of Lake Charles and its initiatives, click here: https://aacclakecharles.com/about-us/

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