From Port Barre to Patterson, the Bayou Teche has played a vital role in shaping the economy and culture of Acadiana. Today, its story is being rewritten yet again as a hopeful driver of place-based economic development and cultural tourism.
That story is an instructive one for the region, especially as Lafayette considers the potential of the Bayou Vermilion and its role in helping people experience what our community has to offer.
Up and down the Teche, communities are turning to the bayou once more as a vehicle for bringing in tourists, cultivating recreational opportunities and connecting residents to a noteworthy but often under-appreciated civic asset: the riverfront.
“The Teche formed all of the communities around it,” says Jennifer Stelly, executive director of the St. Martin Economic Development Authority. “At one time that made it easy to transport product down the river. Now it’s about the cultural — bringing people to festivals and historic downtowns — like the Evangeline Oak, the Old Castillo Hotel [in St. Martinville], all these historical places.”
In Breaux Bridge, Stelly thinks that the old Breaux Bridge Sugar Mill site on the Teche would be a perfect place to develop a farmers market and food truck park. Brad Clifton, mayor of Loreauville, has plans to revamp an old bayou-adjacent fire station for use as a welcome center, Acadian museum, music pavilion and rest station for kayakers. In New Iberia, Mayor Freddie DeCourt has spearheaded a master plan that connects Bayou Teche to the city’s historic downtown. In 2022, Bouligny Plaza — a large event space and city welcome center — opened near the floating dock on New Iberia’s riverfront.
“Last month we had thousands of people at Bouligny Plaza for the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff,” says Mike Tarantino, president and CEO of the Iberia Development Foundation. “We’re tying it to the cultural activities that are here — New Iberia has hosted dragon boat races on the Bayou Teche. It’s a huge draw for people all around our region to come and connect.
“There’s been a lot of focus on the pavilions, landings, kayak docks, ways for people to park and have access. A lot of communities don’t have public access to their waterfront. We’re lucky to have that here and to capitalize on it.”
Mayor Clifton says the bayou can play a similar role in connecting Loreauville residents to their history.
“Sometimes, crossing the bridge is the most people see of the Teche,” he says. “We want to let people see how it’s shaped our community and economy. The Teche is a corridor to the rest of the world, and it’s a highlight of Acadian history.”
For over a decade, Teche communities have had a nonprofit partner in developing the river as an asset — crucially, through efforts to develop a cleaner and healthier waterway. The TECHE Project started as a way to engage people in clean-up and water quality efforts, and in 2015, the organization was successful in having the bayou designated as Louisiana’s only national water trail.
The TECHE Project has also been active in partnering with municipalities and property owners to build out paddle trail infrastructure connecting Teche communities via access docks. This October, the organization held a ribbon cutting behind Poche’s Market in Breaux Bridge, opening the last of 15 docks along 135 miles of river, an impressive feat in an area where public right-of-way can be hard to come by.
“We’ve had so much support from individuals and communities,” says Patti Holland, executive director of the TECHE Project. “Floyd Poche [owner of Poche’s Market & Restaurant] stepped up and said ‘you can put one here.’ St. Martin Parish agreed to lease the property and have it as a facility. Then Floyd stepped up further and said, ‘I’ll put in a pavilion.’”
The ribbon cutting was celebrated alongside the TECHE Project’s Shake Your Trail Feather paddle fundraiser, with up to 150 paddlers rowing from Poche’s to Parc des Ponts in Breaux Bridge, many dressed up like birds.
“This type of experience just lends itself to so many opportunities,” says Holland. “You can take your dogs or your children, put in at Poche Bridge, end up at Breaux Bridge and see the sites.”
A model for Lafayette?
The development of a paddle trail and other public sites along the Teche has not been without challenge — namely, well-publicized environmental issues (the bayou is still listed as an impaired waterway with the EPA) and access problems. These issues also impact Lafayette’s Bayou Vermilion, where the Bayou Vermilion District was formed in 1984 to act on reports that the Vermilion was the “most polluted” river in the United States.
“The Bayou Vermilion District is older, and in some ways the TECHE Project has been able to improve on things the BVD did,” says Gregory Guidroz, current TECHE Project board member and former director of environmental awareness for Bayou Vermilion District.
“In the ‘80s, with the oil downturn, Louisiana started focusing on cultural tourism to spur another economy. You saw the BVD attached to Vermilionville [opened in 1990] to promote that. That was extremely unique for Louisiana at the time,” he says.
Advocates for both waterways have been successful in positioning them as national and international destinations: the Tour du Teche race and the Vermilion Voyage paddle down to Palmetto Island State Park draw enthusiasts worldwide. However, Acadiana’s two rivers have different opportunities available in the push for more bayou-adjacent destinations — meaning, you don’t have to get in a canoe to enjoy the view.
According to Guidroz, the ability to develop riverside property is highly dependent on simple facts of history and geography: the Teche was settled by people traveling up river, while the Vermilion didn’t attract townships in the same way.
As communities grew in size and wealth, thanks to the region’s hugely valuable sugarcane, cotton, rice, and indigo production, commerce and communication thrived. Settlements along the Teche were on average about 7 miles apart — an easy half-a-day boat ride.
“The Acadians came through and settled in the places that became Loreauville, New Iberia, Parks, Cecilia, Arnaudville,” says Guidroz. “There are a lot of communities closer together, and places for people to travel to.
“On the Vermilion it’s different. There’s little between Arnaudville and Lafayette — and Lafayette wasn’t settled on the river. So the city is pushing down south, and you have houses and private property, but few community spaces.”
That said, the Teche is similarly challenged with a lack of public, development-ready properties. In St. Martin Parish, one answer is to continue to pursue engagement with property owners, in hopes of finding the next Floyd Poche willing to leverage land for community benefit.
“It’s the same issue as with the Vermilion. There’s no land left because it’s all homes,” Stelly says. “We work to identify properties and engage owners, but it’s difficult with all these properties in rural parishes – when someone dies it goes to 8 different people in different states, and that’s hard to work with.
“You have to show them what you want to do – really lead them in the right direction.”
On the Vermilion, there are opportunities on the horizon to develop more riverfront recreation — reminiscent of smaller-scale projects in New Iberia and Loreauville — at the Trappey canning plant. The master plan for this site is inspired by the San Antonio Riverwalk, and could feature a number of destination retail, residential and recreational opportunities.
Along the Bayou Teche, advocates for the waterway have shown success in their ability to bring together civic leaders, community members and landowners to bring the river back into community life. According to Guidroz, for Lafayette, the lesson is simple: “there’s no substitute for citizen engagement.”
“Community involvement builds on the potential of the river,” he says. “These are tremendous assets for our communities, and opportunities to create beautiful natural experiences. You need the engagement of the community to realize it.”