When Arlene Meraux founded the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, she asked her niece Rita to manage it with a simple guiding principle: to ensure that the land resources that Arlene transferred to the Foundation would be used to improve the quality of life in St. Bernard.
To advance this mission, the Meraux Foundation partnered with Studio Arabi, the artistic team of Erica and Mitchell Gaudet, to develop a two block stretch of vacant and underused properties along St. Claude Avenue into Studio Arabi, an “art campus” that includes studios, galleries, and a lounge and theatre.
The Meraux Foundation assembled the properties as a public interest project to accelerate the growth of the Old Arabi Cultural District.
Borrowing from creative placemaking approaches, the project leverages arts and culture as a driver for economic development and enhanced livability in the parish.
Small towns struggling in the wake of out-migration and the Great Recession are turning to arts and culture as an economic and community development strategy.
A growing body of evidence suggests that fostering creative activity is an effective way to revitalize communities. We need look no further than the success of the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville, Louisiana to see this type of creative placemaking working. Placemaking is an intentional, collaborative effort to build the character of a place. Creative placemaking employs arts, culture, and creativity to transform a community in a way that builds character, identify, and sense of place. There are many approaches to creative placemaking, including cultural districts, creative industry clusters, mixed use development, and public art. Studio Arabi is leveraging several of these approaches as a strategy for economic development and enhanced livability in the Parish.
Studio Arabi has ignited positive development, attracting other arts and culture related businesses to the area.
Studio Arabi is strategically positioned within the newly designated Old Arabi Cultural District, a state-certified Cultural District approved by the Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism on July 1, 2014. The district, spanning from Jackson Barracks to N. Peters St. and St. Bernard Hwy. to the parish line, contains existing cultural assets, including Studio Inferno, the Maumus Center, the Sugar Museum, the Lebeau Plantation site, the Aycock Barn, artist studios on Mehle Street, and more. Businesses within the district benefit from tax incentives including a sales tax exemption on the sale of certain original works of art, individual tax credits for eligible expenses incurred during the rehabilitation of certain owner-occupied residential or owner-occupied mixed use structures, and income and corporate franchise tax credits for eligible expenses incurred during the rehabilitation of certain historic structures.
The project is also benefitting from and complementing a recently completed $811,000 median (neutral ground) beautification project along the corridor.
Studio Arabi is a $2 million project that has created a unique space that is spurring economic development in Arabi and throughout St. Bernard. It is attracting people to live, work, visit, and spend money in the Parish. Re-envisioning and putting the vacant and underused properties back into commerce is generating local property and sales tax revenues that can be devoted to infrastructure improvements. The $2 million acquisition, construction, and renovation project alone supported more than 100 jobs, and the finished project has directly created some 15 new jobs for St. Bernard. The redevelopment is also contributing to a ripple effect, attracting complimentary businesses to the area.
New residents, including creative workers, looking to live near Studio Arabi are drawn to St. Bernard by its affordable housing, low crime, high-performing schools, as well as the other quality of life attributes that the Parish offers. New residents will contribute to the local economy, spending money at local businesses and paying taxes in St. Bernard. Current residents, too, spend more money inside the Parish at the new businesses instead of in neighboring parishes.
Studio Arabi is transforming a stretch of highway into a unique, welcoming gateway into St Bernard. It is enriching the neighborhood’s character and compliments the charm of Old Arabi. The project is enhancing the livability of the area for residents, improving aesthetics and creating new cultural assets for locals to enjoy. As demonstrated in other communities, when these types of creative placemaking projects build momentum, they attract more quality of life projects, like public art, bike paths, parks, and gardens.
This project is a unique collaboration between civic, nonprofit, and for-profit partners. With confidence that it will reinvigorate the St. Claude corridor, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, a private, family managed 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, assembled the properties to jumpstart and instantly scale the concept. The two-block assemblage provides the footprint necessary to achieve critical mass and to establish Studio Arabi as a destination.
The Meraux Foundation was established by Arlene Meraux to benefit the community of St. Bernard Parish by leveraging its landholdings. Today the Foundation’s board of directors is presided over by Arlene’s niece, Rita Gue, and members Floyd Gue, Bill Haines, Chris Haines, and Sidney Torres, III. Guided by Arlene’s vision, the board is implementing an innovative strategy to create lasting change and build a better St. Bernard.
All of the Foundation’s actions meet five key criteria. They:
With these five criteria in mind, the Foundation has been able to make great strides toward fulfilling Arlene’s vision.
The Foundation’s signature place-based project has been Docville Farm, a 130 acre campus dedicated to charitable purposes and operated by the Foundation as a center for culture and learning.
The Foundation is pursuing this new place-based project to harness the power of the arts to heighten quality of life and revitalize the Parish. The Foundation’s role in the public interest project was to make it (1) possible by assembling the properties and (2) affordable by leasing them at a low interest rate. Affordable rents will attract artists to the space. Any revenue generated from the project by the Foundation will be reinvested to fund its charitable endeavors.
6601 — STUDIO INFERNO
Housed in what was the Arabi theatre, Studio Inferno is a glass studio, gallery, and artist space. All of Studio Inferno’s regionally influenced artwork is produced here as well as commissioned pieces. Studio Inferno is home to Mitchell Gaudet’s studio as well as three other artist spaces. It is open to the public for gallery and shop tours.
6609-6619 — LIVE + CREATE
This sixplex apartment building will be renovated into living quarters for artists.
6621 — The Valiant Theatre + Lounge
Named ‘The Valiant’ in honor of a large, historic crown that adorns the building, the new space located in the old pawn shop has a full service bar and lounge in addition to a 120 seat theatre. Operated by Richard Mayer, the theatre hosts a wide variety of performances, including cabaret, puppetry, musicals, plays, and more.
6707 — STUDIO ARABI
Studio Arabi in the old Fastenal building has been renovated to provide 12 studio spaces varying in size from 500 to 2000 sq. ft. Spaces are still available, and current tenants include: