SHREVEPORT, Louisiana — The news that a decaying downtown building has a chance for new life as a museum, performing arts center and a place to kayak and climb has downtown planners and fans jumping for joy.
"It is creating excitement," said Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Liz Swaine. "Their plans are ambitious and would mean so much for downtown Shreveport."
The building, which formerly housed the YWCA at 710 Travis St., was purchased for $500,000 in September by the nonprofit Rainforest Art Foundation, announced Stephanie Lusk, of Shreveport, foundation co-director. The YWCA closed and the building vacated in 2010. The foundation is comprised of some 90 artists of different media from around the world and the mission is to increase appreciation of nature through art, in hopes of stimulating further preservation, Lusk said.
Rainforest co-director James Yu, Lusk's father, says that renovation will be done on a shoestring, but estimates it will take six to eight months and cost from $1 to$1.5 million. The initial work will focus on exhibition areas.
"We hope to have grants to relieve the initial cost," said Yu, an award-winning New York developer.
Yu started looking seriously at Shreveport and Bossier City in 2013 when the Shreveport Regional Arts Council debuted its new facility in the former Shreveport Central Fire Station building.
Rainforest artists include Marlene Tseng Yu, of New York, wife of James and mother of Lusk, who is the foundation founder.
Marlene Yu said the aim of the organization is "to grow the love of nature globally amongst the local and international art communities and to call attention to our need to preserve our earth."
During a recent tour of the 36,000-square-foot facility, she explained plans for the building.
— First floor: Exhibit hall for Rain Forest art, and a performance hall and community wing.
— Lower level: Gymnasium would become Marlene Museum housing large-scale works of Marlene Yu. It is dedicated to the exhibition, preservation, documentation of her artwork and life. The nature-inspired canvasses range from 18 inches to 18 feet and as long as a mural-sized 36 feet. Sculpture garden in the courtyard.
The building's swimming pool would be saved, if possible, and become the River Rocks Life whitewater and climbing training center.
"Water activities could include rolling sessions, access to individualized kayak instruction ... stand-up paddling, kayak polo, slalom races," Lusk said.. Climbing equipment could be installed and used for training.
"We are still assessing the costs of renovation and maintenance. If costs are prohibitive ... we would fill in the pool to be another exhibition space," she said. A big expense would be a heating element, which has kept the pool out of use since 2004, she explained.
"We have to test the equipment," said James Yu,. "The equipment is still there, but has not been in use. We will fill it with water and see how the pumps and filter works. If it doesn't, we will get a swimming pool company to give us an estimate on repair."
He emphasized the focus will not be on the swimming pool, but the exhibition spaces.
— Second and third floors: Office and more exhibit space.
Although there has been some cleaning of the building and more to come, renovation is not too far away.
Yu plans to hire an architect and to file a plan with the building department, but predicts it will take a good six to eight months to finish construction. "We will do a thorough job and most of it will be nonstructural," James said.
Community leaders are optimistic about the news.
Shreveport City Councilman Jeff Everson, whose district includes the downtown area, is thrilled someone has plans to bring life to an old building..
"It is a really cool space and I hate to see it languish. A lot of communities across the country take pride in old buildings. To repurpose is cool," Everson said.
Swaine said the project could encourage other businesses to locate in the area.
"Whenever there is an anchor tenet who is strong and attracting people to a location, it becomes a prime place for other businesses to want to be because it is going to attract a lot of foot traffic," Swaine added.
James Yu agrees, pointing out that " ... many other businesses will follow suit, so you'd have more restaurants.
Former YWCA Board member Linda Biernacki thinks the project will do wonders for the downtown area.
"Successful cities need a vibrant downtown and this will really instill some vitality back into the downtown area," said Biernacki, a Shreveport businesswoman.
With Shreveport Common, Robinson Film Center and artspace, the building's programs will bring art, music and traffic to downtown, which is what successful cities need, Biernacki said.
SRAC executive director Pam Atchison sees the proposed project as a "boon" to the northwest Louisiana arts community.
The Yus' commitment is a "giant leap" toward establishment of the cultural economy that Shreveport Common is destined to produce, Atchison said.
"This private sector investment by the Lusk family and parents — wildly successful artist Marlene Tseng Yu and proven developer James K. Yu of Long Island City, Queens — signals an optimistic new day for dramatic arts growth," Atchison said.
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com