Sale of 2 Downtown buildings raises public concerns about use

Two downtown Houma buildings within the city’s historic district are being sold by the Terrebonne Parish School District. But the potential sale – already once stalled – has raised concerns.

The School Board was prepared to award a bid for the buildings at 240 and 240-R Barrow Street to Martin Folse, owner of HTV-10, whose studio complex is in the former Dupont building at Barrow and Main, close to where the buildings stand.

Folse’s $250,000 bid was nixed at last week’s meeting due to a technicality, but he expects to resubmit.

Meanwhile some local officials say they fear what plans the broadcaster has in store, including the potential of turning the site into a parking lot.

In a statement he released to the Times on the condition it be printed in its entirety, Folse said if his bid wins again, he would work with downtown officials to ensure he was not running afoul of the historic district’s wishes.

“If the building can be moved, I would rather see it on the Bayou side next to the new Fakier Jewlers [sic] store being built,” Martin wrote. “This would allow the current tenants to be near their same location with ample parking. This would also allow me safer parking for my employees who have to cross Main Street safely only to be occasionally asked for money by street walkers. With the new location, my employees would be safer and I have also offered to (the Rev.) Craig Dalfares the use of the parking for his Sunday congregation if HTV is awarded the bid and performed the building move. The building’s current state is in much needed repair and I would certainly take the same care as I did when I bought the Dupont’s building to respect the heritage and perform the necessary cosmetic changes on the old home. However, this is only speculative because I have not re-bid as of yet. Once again, if I bid and win the bid, all options will be assessed and respected.”

According to TPSD Superintendent Philip Martin, the sale had to be halted because of an error in the legal description of the property. The Terrebonne Parish School District’s legal advisors discovered the error in the original advertisement after Folse’s successful bid in May and advised them to pull it.

“When you pay lawyers to give you advice and they tell you to do something, you’d be a fool not to do it,” Martin said.

The school district will re-advertise the two buildings on Barrow, which combine to form one large lot. Martin said the lot could be re-advertised by as early as this week. The new bid will be treated as the property’s first, meaning any winning bid must be at least 85 percent of the lot’s $225,000 appraised value. Folse’s original successful bid was $250,000.

The property’s return to bid status comes as a slight relief for some in the downtown area concerned about Folse’s plans. The two Barrow buildings are currently leased out, with interior design company Designs by Two renting 240 and a resident occupying 240R. Anne Picou, manager of the Houma Downtown Development Corporation, was informed by Folse of his plans for a parking lot on the site. Those plans could face opposition from Picou’s organization and the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation. The intent of the historic district designation is protection of properties due to their historical significance. According to Picou, any demolition or alterations to buildings in the district are only permitted on buildings in severe disrepair. Picou said the property may not have specific historical significance, but that the buildings are over 50 years old with most of their original architecture’s integrity intact.

Picou said Folse performed proper diligence by checking with her before going through with any plans. But that doesn’t alter concerns, she said, that the restrictions are in place to keep the culture and the character of Houma’s downtown area alive. According to Picou, maintaining that history keeps Houma as a unique town that attracts visitors.

“People like to visit other communities and see what’s their thumbprint in the world. You don’t want to go vacationing and see the same thing in Florida that you see in Houma, Louisiana,” Picou said.

Lori Davis is a local business owner who has renovated 7887 Main Street in downtown Houma. She recalled shopping at the different downtown shops as a child, including at the Houma Bargain Store at 7887 Main. She remembers how the large wooden staircase inside the building would serve a springboard for her youthful imagination. When she heard the almost 130-year-old building was up for sale and facing possible demolition, she stepped in to purchase it and renovate it. Davis currently rents out multiple commercial spaces downstairs and has residential tenants at the top of that sentimental staircase.

“When you see a building that could potentially become something that creates economic development and drives people downtown, you want to make sure that property remains historic and it doesn’t leave. I’ve seen some things torn down, and it just breaks my heart that they did that. Some of the old properties, they’re gone. Once they’re torn down, they’re gone. And there’s nothing you can do to change that,” Davis said.

Martin said the school district has put 240 and 240R Barrow and other downtown properties up for sale because it does not need to be in the real estate business.

“All I want to do is sell it. I’m tired of being a landlord,” Martin said.

Picou noted that many times during economic booms, the thirst for development can overtake the interests of culture. However, even in the current economic malaise, downtown Houma can reveal the tension between modernity and history.

“When you throw away the old and bring in the new, then you lose your history. You lose that thumbprint, you become a cookie cutter,” Picou said.

Barrow Street lotKARL GOMMEL | THE TIMES