State Investment Headed to Shreveport’s Core
Joe D. Waggoner Building moving forward
Two significant developments involving Shreveport’s geographic core emerged from the 2022 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature. The first is that Louisiana will use the Office Facilities Corporation (OFC) to construct the Northwest Louisiana State Office Building at 500 Fannin St. in downtown Shreveport. Notably, the OFC helped transform downtown Baton Rouge by infusing thousands of state workers into the area at the direction of Gov. Mike Foster’s administration. The effort was driven by a vision developed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s “Plan Baton Rouge” and began in earnest in the late 1990s, during my first tenure as a member of the state legislature.
The $70 million project acquired the privately built space initially constructed by local contractors in 1974. Known as the Joe D. Waggonner Federal Building, the federal government leased the building for the next 20 years for use as a federal courthouse and office space. At the end of the contract, the federal government chose not to renew its lease and instead decided to construct its own federal district courthouse and dispersed most other federal offices into nongovernment-owned spaces around town.
The building then sat empty and for sale from the spring of 1994 until it was acquired for housing the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law in 2011. While ultimately unsuccessful, the law school effort proved that the edifice was a prime candidate for a cost-saving adaptive repurposing and only needed the right end user to again come back into active use.
Over the same period of time, continuing to house Louisiana state workers on Fairfield Avenue, in what was constructed as the headquarters of the United Gas Corporation in 1940, was becoming increasingly more problematic due to the long-standing challenges of the historic building. A chorus of Shreveport area leaders encouraged the state to consider moving downtown. Billy Wilson, head of the Louisiana Office of State Buildings, was tasked with weighing and assessing the possibilities and then reporting on the state’s options.
The state conducted a space needs analysis in 2012 that evaluated a range of options to address the identified challenges. The then ownership of 500 Fannin provided information to the state regarding the suitability of that location as an option in approximately 2014, but ultimately no action was taken then.
Upon returning to the House in 2016, one of my first actions was to contact Mr. Wilson for an update on the status of the state’s space needs issues in Shreveport. I quickly realized that the best option was the adaptive reuse of 500 Fannin St. Doing so would save a tremendous amount of money and put back into commerce a long empty building in need of a new tenant.
Thanks to the bipartisan coalition Sen. Robert Mills helped forge last March, the regional legislative delegation finally reached the consensus needed to advance this scenario. In swift order, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration requested the OFC to move forward with officially creating the project and acquiring the property.
Before any of that could proceed forward, one important question had to be answered: “What to do with the existing Mary Allen State Building, formerly the United Gas Building, built on the beautiful and historic grounds of Peter Youree’s Youreeka?” Answering this crucial question was paramount to a host of Highland area stakeholders.
This was important because, while most would consider a state office building less than the highest and most effective use of that location, it is a far superior option to an empty building. A transparent, grassrootsdriven dialogue with Highland stakeholders soon revealed that what might initially be viewed as a problem could, in fact, represent a real opportunity. This significant second development opportunity to repurpose the current state building into a “live, work, learn and play” space teeming with hundreds of people in and around the northwest corner of upper Highland on an around-the-clock basis is exciting.
The means of realizing a “live, work, learn and play” space is achievable by utilizing a mechanism detailed in the city’s 2011 Comprehensive Master Plan called a redevelopment authority. Existing state law allows such entities to be used to leverage publicly owned assets in ways that can protect and maximize the public’s best interests. The successful passage of House Bill 773 of the 2022 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature allows facilitation of this specific effort.
As work gets underway on the new Northwest Louisiana State Building at 500 Fannin St., the process to identify those interested, most capable, and best suited to repurpose 1525 Fairfield Ave. will be commenced by the members of the Shreveport Implementation and Redevelopment Authority (SIRA). The SIRA is now statutorily empowered to take possession of the asset from the state for fair market value once it has been declared as official state surplus as outlined by state statute. In addition, the SIRA would then be empowered to transfer it to new ownership under an agreement that would include performance clauses and clawback provisions, all facilitated through a competitive and transparent process.
As this situation has been envisioned and conceived, by making effective use of the time available, a qualified development team could be in place and ready to proceed with a redevelopment vision at the current state building on Fairfield as soon as the state is prepared to officially move into its new offices downtown. The level of interest by potential developers and their chances for project success are all enhanced by the location’s eligibility for state and federal historic restoration tax credits that could combine to as much as 45%.
To paraphrase one Highland area leader:
“What we have here is the opportunity for a triple win. A win for downtown Shreveport, a win for the state of Louisiana and a win for the Highland neighborhood.”