Mayor Murphy McMillin on preserving small town USA

Jena, LA
From left: Oak Street in downtown Jena; participants in one of the city’s visioning sessions; an excerpt from Jena’s Vision, the town plan.

When a proposed highway project threatened Jena, LA’s historic downtown, Mayor Murphy McMillin worked with residents and fellow city officials to come up with alternatives to the construction. What ensued was a long-term vision incorporating smart growth strategies that not only found a solution to the highway project, but will also help guide development and protect Jena’s natural assets for years to come.

Jena has a simple tag line—“A nice place to call home.” Mayor McMillin, a charter member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, describes the town as a close-knit community of 3,000 residents located between the larger metropolitan areas of Alexandria and Monroe, and residents are fond and protective of their town’s rural character and identity.

When the Louisiana Department of Transportation (LA DOTD) announced plans to widen route U.S. 84 through the heart of Jena’s historic downtown, Mayor McMillin took the opportunity engage town residents in developing a long term vision to address ways to preserve the city’s quality of life for the future.

murphyThe ensuing project is called Jena’s Vision, the community’s first ever town plan.

“The plan encompasses many smart growth strategies, including focusing on infill development in our historic downtown district,” says McMillin. “We’re refurbishing the older housing close to our downtown area and working with property owners in converting some downtown buildings into mixed-use.”

Preserving open space and the town’s rural charm is important to the mayor and his constituents. “We don’t have an urban sprawl problem just yet, but we will if we’re not careful,” says McMillin, who has worked closely with potential real estate developers to invest in multiple close-in properties rather than a single large greenfield subdivision on the edge of town. “We want to maintain our town’s identity. We’re making sure we’re not abusing our landscape around the town.”

On the highway widening project, LA DOTD proposed three different construction plans to town residents. From McMillin’s perspective, all three options posed significant risks to the livability and economic potential of downtown Jena, threatening to degrade the town’s historic district with traffic, noise and exhaust. McMillin asked LA DOTD to allow a six-month period for the community to develop their own proposal, which would redirect U.S. 84 around Jena’s historic district with a series of one-way couplets. Their resulting proposal would preserve Jena’s small-town character while still accommodating for the increase in vehicle traffic. The community pitched the alternative design to LA DOTD, and the agency accepted. The new project was incorporated into the Jena’s Vision plan.

“To me, smart growth is about development but also about preserving our quality of life,” adds McMillin. “By providing more housing choices, protecting the natural beauty of our environment, the quality of our water and caring for our open space, I want to make sure in everything we do, that we’re good stewards of those things and enhancing the quality of life for Jena’s residents.”

Local Leaders Council