The tiny town of Morganza has a bald eagle nest, a roadside marker noting its role in the movie "Easy Rider" and a historic-but-dilapidated shell of a high school. Now what it wants is tourists.
Roughly 50 of the town's 900 residents, ranging from war veterans to young businesspeople, showed up this week at the town's refurbished gymnasium to support the Morganza Cultural District, a year-old group that wants to find a way to draw a crowd to their corner of Pointe Coupee Parish.
“Welcome, thanks for coming tonight, and let’s revitalize Morganza,” district president Rene Thibodeaux said, drowned out by a proud round of applause at the mention of the village’s name.
Monday's meeting was the third for the tax-exempt group.
In line with its history with "Easy Rider," the counter-cultural classic from 1968, the town already has in the works hosting thousands of Harley-Davidson riders at the Cajun Country HOG Rally in April. It's major goal — bringing the abandoned Morganza High School building back to life — has proven a labor-intensive and costly endeavor.
The building graduated its last class in the 1980s and has been vacant since 2008, when it served as a hurricane evacuation shelter, Thibodeaux said. The cultural district recently entered into a non-monetary 10-year lease agreement with the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board to refurbish the main building, excluding the cafeteria and gym, which are already under agreement with other parish entities.
That building has broken windows, swollen floors and the recent discovery of $20,000 in unforeseen flooring damage, making the cost to rehabilitate the school a moving target that easily surpasses $50,000. A local couple, Alyson and Cleve Coates, own several antique malls in the Pointe Coupee area and have expressed interest in opening a mall inside the school building, Thibodeaux said at the meeting Monday. But, in order to open a business inside, the structure needs be in working order.
“We’re in the process of trying to fix and save the school because we have a businessman and businesswoman, and they are here with us tonight. … They would like to open up a business in here and that’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Thibodeaux told the group. “We are trying to get that done as fast as we possibly can.” The Coates did not return calls to The Advocate this week about the venture, but Thibodeaux said the possible business is in its early stages because no one knows quite how much money or labor will be required.
The cultural district has netted $16,000 in funds raised over the past year. James Joseph, known to most in the area as “Big Brown”, was instrumental in fundraising the more than $100,000 needed to renovate the gym the group used for the town hall meeting. He said his team worked in small increments to bring the building back to life, and said the Morganza community could do the same.
“You’re here, you want to make a difference, well it’s your house so make a difference,” he said, pacing back and forth across the gym. “That school, you look at it and see money and how much it’s going to take, the majority of money you’re going to spend is on labor. … You’ve got a weekend? Fix one of those windows, you’ll get it done one at a time.”
It’s the little-by-little approach that Thibodeaux and others pushed for, urging those in attendance to sign up to help serve jambalaya to hungry bikers on the Harley Davidson ride in April, to donate labor to refurbishing the school or to come forward with ideas to raise money.
Major Thibaut, the current parish president and former state representative for the area, commended the group’s ambition and pledged the parish’s help in revitalization efforts.
“Thank you for your enthusiasm and we’ll keep a good thing going, work together and get something done,” he said at the town hall. Thibodeaux said he hopes the school building can open as a business and historic site sometime in 2019. He and the group are seeking memorabilia from the school to put on display, and will soon start a Morganza High School alumni association to boost stakeholder engagement in the cultural district.
Eventually, they want to create a walking path along the levee and seek out property that could serve as a convenience store for the town. "We already know Morganza is a great place, we’re just hoping to show other people that, too,” Thibodeaux said.