LAKE CHARLES — When musician Dominique Darbonne took the stage at the Chuck Fest music festival recently, she felt overwhelmed. In a good way.
The festival returned to the streets of downtown Lake Charles for the first time on Oct. 22 after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic and the city‘s ongoing struggle to recover from a series of natural disasters.
“Everyone I’ve ever known and loved has been there and it truly is like one of my wildest dreams — I imagined this, craved this and wondered if we could ever be like this again,” said Darbonne, lead Lead singer of the popular local band The Flamethrowers. “It just reminded me how much I love Lake Charles, how amazing Lake Charles is and how much this place is worth fighting for.”
After two turbulent years for the city, Chuck Fest marks the return of events on a larger scale. With restrictions on public gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus and many venues damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020, most gatherings had arisen out of necessity: to share food, help repair damage, or people to get vaccinated.
“It seems we haven’t met for anything good in the last few years, has it? We’re grieving or we’re fighting something or we’re recovering,” said Darbonne, who also helped survivors of the storm through the Vessel Project charity she co-founded. “I think for a lot of people this was a reminder that we have a different culture than suffering and frustration.”
The success of this year’s Chuck Fest — many locals refer to the town as Lake Chuck — demonstrated the need for such a positive event for the community, said Amie Johnson, board member of the Arts and Humanities Council of Southwest Louisiana, who organized the event.
“There was this nostalgia for this type of event, everyone got together and danced in the street with their friends,” Johnson said. “There is an ease.”
Coming together as a community for a positive cause is a key element in the region’s process of rebuilding and preparing for future disasters, said Matt Young, director of cultural affairs for the City of Lake Charles. Other events have also gradually returned, but the Chuck Fest, which began in 2014, had become a major event for the city.
“After the storms, when it seemed like there wasn’t going to be a just response from the federal government, they just pulled themselves up by their boots and helped their neighbors. I don’t know if there would be if there wasn’t a sense of community, a sense of belonging,” Young said. “And that’s heralded by big community events like this one.”
For community-serving organizations, the return of events also means a return of fundraising opportunities.
The Children’s Museum of Southwest Louisiana saw its physical location completely destroyed by Laura. However, Allyson Montgomery, director of operations and development, said the museum postponed its annual fundraiser in 2021 because it recognized there were more urgent needs in the community at the time.
“We wanted to make sure your basic community needs, like food and housing, are catered for [first]’ Montgomery said. Now the museum can hold its first major event for donors while awaiting the construction of a new facility on the north shore of the lake shore.
Without a physical facility, much of the museum’s programming has also focused on events, including an upcoming arts festival.
“All of our focus is just attending community events and connecting,” said Montgomery. “You can’t stop living just because something bad happened. So you pick up the pieces and go ahead and make it bigger and better than before.”
Events are also an important factor in the region’s economic recovery. While most tourists come to gamble at one of two — soon to be three again — casinos, a robust cultural scene will likely motivate them to stay longer — and perhaps spend some of their winnings at other local businesses.
“If we don’t have these festivals and events, we’re missing the celebration of our heritage, culture and cuisine that visitors really want to experience when they’re here,” said Kathryn Shea Duncan, director of social media at Visit Lake Charles, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It gives the visitor something to add to their itinerary, thus extending their stay,” she added. “They will buy more gas, they will visit more restaurants and more bars and more local shops, which increases visitor impact in the community.”
Some of the most immediate effects can be seen in downtown Lake Charles, a popular venue for events and festivals. The district is struggling to regain its vibrancy but is currently seeing a wave of investment from both private and public entities looking to rebuild and transform buildings and businesses.
“It’s about quality of life, not just for downtown, but for all of Southwest Louisiana,” said Jay Ecker, owner of Panorama Music Hall and board member of the Lake Charles Downtown Business Association. “Really, we’re talking about our community’s living room.”
Darbonne, the musician, hopes there will be many more events in the near future that allow residents of Lake Charles and beyond to come together in the good times and help them get through the bad.
“Life in Louisiana, and especially in this no man’s land, isn’t really easy, we face a lot of interesting challenges,” she said, referring to the region’s early 19th-century designation. “I hope that as we continue to recover and continue to move forward, we will come together much more often and enjoy and cheer on one another. Because that’s how we will get through everything.”
Playing in front of hundreds of people in the city’s living room seemed like a good start.