The City of Ruston and Tech commit to each other – and a brighter future
Ruston mayor Ronny Walker is on a tight schedule this sunny and fast-moving Wednesday in June. He’s running on not much sleep and a to-do list as long as his arm, both by design.
“Best job I’ve ever had,” Walker says of the post Ruston voters elected him to in November of 2014. “Makes you want to hustle out of bed every day and get to work. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping because I can’t want to get to the next thing we need to do.”
Today, “the next thing” is to host at Ruston’s Civic Center a dinner given by the City of Ruston for the parents of students in town for Louisiana Tech’s Honors Orientation “Dog Days of Summer.” He has on “Tech Blue pants and my white shirt with the Tech logo on it,” he says. “We’ve got 500 kids downtown coming to Tech; it sends chills down my spine. I try to explain to people how much energy they bring to this town when they come to campus.”
During orientation, high school seniors who’ll be Tech freshmen in the fall are getting registered, housed, and shown around: in a word, oriented. Parties and games in the Quad. They are doing young-people things.
Meanwhile, so is Walker, enthusiastically informing the parents about what is happening in Ruston, how it is growing, where it is growing, and why their children are such an integral part of that. And why are they? Because these students are about to be part of Tech, which means they’ll be part of the City of Ruston.
Through orientation, students are informed and ingrained not only into the University but also into the City. Another project that ties the two together and has been an overwhelming success is the Tech Trolly, a series of vans that shuttle fans from renovated Railroad Park in the heart of a revitalized, re-landscaped downtown to Joe Aillet Stadium and back on football game days.
“It’s one of those things that make Tech and the City basically rely on each other,” Ruston city councilman Jedd Lewis said. “You’ve got great communication between the City and the school, and the professors are always trying to get the students involved. (Band director) Jim Robken is a great example: he gets Tech’s band downtown for pep rallys and other things. People like to see it, and the kids love it.”
As Walker studied progressive, forward-thinking cities, he found a common denominator: growing towns had a vibrant downtown. In 2016 the City bought new Christmas lights, added flower beds, covered the stage at Railroad Park and seriously beautified the area. The Tech Trolly has served as an exclamation point.
“Football and Tech fans are downtown, which helps our merchants,” Walker said. “It makes things vibrant on game days. It helps us and it helps Tech.”
“All we can do for Tech,” Lewis said, “just makes things all the better for all of us.”
Although Ruston and Tech have existed within each other’s gravitational pull for nearly 125 years, never has the partnership been more intentional and strong than it is right now.
“We are joined at the hip,” Walker says.
“Hand in hand,” says Tech president Les Guice.
“Closer than it’s ever been,” said Sam Wallace, Tech’s associate vice president of administration and facilities who has been with the school for 33 years. “The City actually bends over backward to help us.”
“A genuine partnership,” Lewis said. “You have good people leading the charge from both sides of the aisle. Nobody thinks or feels they’re above doing what needs to be done to make things better for everyone. Working together is just common sense.”
“The University is the greatest economic driver we have in our city,” Walker said. “Why wouldn’t we choose to support it?”
Guice became Tech’s president six years ago; Walker has been mayor a bit more than half that time. The two came to an agreement early.
“We see the City and the University as being intertwined, interdependent on each other,” Guice said. “Look at all the housing and apartments being built across town; a significant part of that is because of Tech’s growth and companies moving here. That’s creating better restaurants, more hotels…”
In April of 2016, Ruston voters approved a 20-year, dedicated three-quarter-cent city sales tax that gave arms and legs to Walker’s Moving Ruston Forward vision. The tax should generate more than $4 million per year.
Tech has been a benefactor. Almost immediately, city-wide infrastructure maintenance and improvements began; some projects, now underway, had been on the books but idle for 25 years.
The work includes the MLK Extension, a conversion to automated water meters, 35 miles of street overlay, re-routing at hot traffic spots, and sewerage and water treatment plant projects. None of those matter much — until the toilet won’t flush or you’re stuck in traffic. (Thank you, sewerage and traffic improvements!)
Some of the more glamorous projects are the 20 miles of connecting bike trails and sidewalks, the animal shelter that will break ground in a few months, the new Farmer’s Market location, and infrastructure in place for residential and commercial sites on Cooktown Road, at Tarbutton Road, and alongside Interstate-20 east of the Farmerville Highway exit.
“It a great time,” Walker said, “to be in Ruston.”
The mayor quickly acknowledges that without the support — first of the voters and then of the Ruston City Council — Ruston would be doing “about $2 million in infrastructure this year as opposed to $125 million,” he said. “The Council has understood and supported what we’re trying to do, and the people of Ruston saw and believed in our vision; now they’re seeing the results.”
While the improvements will no doubt make Ruston more attractive to businesses and residents, a few projects — such as the “more glamorous” ones mentioned — more directly impact the University, specifically its young student body. Coupled with Tech’s new student residential projects are three new city subdivisions, each one a project of Shreveport-Bossier developers. One new apartment complex is the project of an Indiana developer, and the developer of the Cooktown Road shopping center is from Tennessee.
“People from around the country are realizing that Ruston and Louisiana Tech are hot spots,” Walker said.
Ruston is quickly becoming a two-college town now that more housing is available. “Kids who go to Tech but don’t live in Ruston live in Grambling, and the ones who go to Grambling and don’t live there live here,” Walker said. “For years there was a moratorium on student housing; now both universities are growing and we’re playing catch-up.”
Speaking of growing and playing, the largest project in the city’s history will be complete and open for business in 2019: the giant sports complex south of town, able to host six different types of tournaments on the same weekend and projected to bring 250,000 to 300,000 outside visitors to the city annually — and will likely employ Tech students year-round.
“The new athletic complex just adds fuel to the fire,” Guice said. “The city is working to improve the quality of life, to make it a great place to live for the students and faculty who are already here. Ruston’s expanding focus on the arts, its dedication to downtown, and the new biking trails, all of those things are vitally important to our area becoming attractive or remaining attractive to this generation.”
Ruston recently began its “Ruston Recycles” program, one of the few in the state, and Tech has its “Red and Blue, Go Green” recycling program. There is room for the Tech/Ruston partnership to really bloom as the arts community begins to expand: imagine something going on every week at the Dixie Center for the Arts, and members of Tech’s art community helping with a year-round youth academy that would mean more training and more performances — and more downtown traffic.
There is an opportunity in the area of civics and history, too. Ruston took over the local military museum when the state shut it down; the City is trying to form a coalition to grow the museum for north Louisiana.
The revitalized Tech/Ruston partnership is producing one opportunity after the other. The past three-plus years illustrate that. Guice, a problem-solving engineer at heart, speaks often of opportunity, of seizing it, of being aware when the moments come that offer the right thing at the right time with the right people.
Seems to be a lot of that going on between Ruston and Tech now. Neither the City nor the University wish to waste any opportunity they can find or create to keep the momentum going.
“Between the City and the University, we’re looking at about $300 million in investments during the past two years or so, private and public,” Walker said. “Dr. Guice is doing so much to help Tech; we’re trying to help him and the University as much as we can.”
“As long as we keep doing what we’re doing, we feel we’re going to flower and flourish for years and years; we just need to keep moving, keep doing the right thing for the greater good, keep putting the money in the right place,” Lewis said. “One thing everyone has always agreed on: everyone believes in having a cohesiveness with the City and with Louisiana Tech.”