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With a robust economy and unique culture, Lafayette is poised for a great future. But it won’t just happen.
We have to seize it — through determination, planning, shared sacrifice and common purpose.

It’s a common denominator among the small group of community leaders and visionaries who participated in this Vision Issue 2014. When asked what Lafayette’s greatest asset is, they almost invariably say the people. (One cited our “unique culture,” which is really an expression of the people.) That’s a good asset to have. For some communities, it’s the natural resources or environment, the proximity to water or mountains or industry. For us, it’s people.

We’ve always been a culture willing to accept a transfusion — outsiders pouring in to ply first a burgeoning oil industry, then an expanding health care sector and, of late, a tech arena that is just getting its sea legs. Yet we’ve maintained an essential identity that is at once genuine and authentic yet also a product of enterprising self-marketing. Cajun. Creole. Small Town. Family. Joie de Vivre. Bon Temps.

iStock 000005459480SmallJust a quarter century ago and for generations before that, Lafayette was a city one was born and raised in and — if you were educated, talented, ambitious and disinclined to work your way up a drilling platform — abandoned to seek fortunes elsewhere. Not so much anymore. No longer just a place to gas up on I-10 or pop over to for a festival, Lafayette has a cultural and economic gravity that is keeping more of our children at home and drawing young professionals like never before, making our best asset, our people, a renewable resource.

Our affinity with New Orleans is a long one — a kinship born in the loin of Roman Catholicism and the French language. It’s where our Cajun forebears landed before venturing farther west into the bayous and prairies of a Spanish territory.

We’ve always thought of Catholics as more tolerant and easy-going, just like residents in Lafayette and the Crescent City. Catholics have after all more avenues to absolution: make it to church on holy days of obligation, do an occasional confession, maybe even wear a scapular — so many rites and sacraments to make one right with the Lord, unlike those austere evangelicals over in Baton Rouge and Duck Dynastyland quivering before an angry, vengeful God. It’s not uncommon here and in New Orleans to think of Louisiana’s capital as a place you drive through to get somewhere else, and we think it has something to do with the Catholic-to-Protestant ratio.

So is it our Cajuns and Creoles or our Catholics who tend to make Lafayette an incubator for a vibrant culture? That’s sort of redundant; if you’re Cajun or Creole you’re almost certainly Catholic. Throw down on Saturday night, no problem, just drag your ass to church on Sunday and you’re good to go.

So the culture thing? Check.

The economy has been humming along, too. And in key roles in the community — notably at the chamber and the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, key drivers of business and tourism — there is new, dynamic young leadership. With a comprehensive plan in the works for the city and a master plan at UL, we’re poised to grow smartly and manageably as opposed to ceding to the imperative of sprawl.

Most signs point to progress, to a better future. But not all of them.

Lafayette remains a place of haves and have-nots. North side-south side. White-black. Affluent-poor. Urban-rural. The seventh-most economically stratified metropolis in America, according to one recent ranking.

Our public education system has made modest gains over the last couple of years, but arguably would have/should have performed better were it not for epic dysfunction by the school board and, we will acknowledge, a combative bedside manner by the superintendent.

And the way we govern and, by extension, tax ourselves — this “consolidated” government that is really not consolidated when you consider that Lafayette is the only one among six municipalities in the parish that is part of the deal — threatens to place Lafayette on the trajectory that long ago doomed New Orleans to the plague of urban decay and is now setting in like a cancer in Baton Rouge.

We’ve earned many of the accolades heaped on us by the food, business and travel press. We can take a moment to pat ourselves on the back — but only a brief moment, because to realize our potential we must realize our shortcomings, roll up our collective sleeves and get busy getting better.
This is the conversation we need to have as a community, and it begins now.

IND Monthly reached out to a small group of community leaders in the business, planning, arts, education and nonprofit sectors to get their take on where we are, where we need to be and how we get there.

The Vision Issue group comprises United Way of Acadiana President/CEO Margaret Trahan, Downtown Development Authority CEO Nathan Norris, actor/producer Marcus Brown, chamber President/CEO Jason El Koubi, South Louisiana Community College Chancellor Natalie Harder, Lafayette Economic Development Authority President/CEO Gregg Gothreaux and Kevin Blanchard, Lafayette Consolidated Government’s chief planning officer.

Space limitations prohibit us from publishing the entirety of their responses to 11 questions/prompts — for that, see the full version of this story at www.theind.com — and their observations certainly vary and are often predicated by their particular areas of expertise. But there is a common thread running through them: Lafayette is a good place to live, a unique place to live, but we cannot rest on our laurels because the time for making difficult decisions about the course of our future is upon us.

group  
Composite photo by Robin May  
Our Vision Issue panel comprises, from left, Natalie Harder, Nathan Norris, Kevin Blanchard,
Jason El Koubi, Margaret Trahan, Gregg Gothreaux and Marcus Lyle Brown.
 

Plan boldly, dig deep, and press forward together
Our Vision Issue panel on Lafayette, its future and how we get to where we want to be

You meet someone in another country who is familiar with New Orleans but not Lafayette. Describe the city in two or three sentences.

GREGG GOTHREAUX: Lafayette, LA has a unique joie de vivre that is unmatched anywhere and an entrepreneurial spirit that places us among the most successful communities in the U.S.

NATALIE HARDER: Having lived in a number of cities, I can tell you there is no place like Lafayette and Acadiana. My family and I have never lived in such a welcoming and warm community. There is no question that the region epitomizes the best our country has to offer in terms of its people and its entrepreneurial spirit.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: Like New Orleans, Lafayette has a unique culture and way of life — no one can replicate what we have. Unlike New Orleans, there’s almost nothing unique about our physical sense of place — we largely look and function like any other mid-size city in the South.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: Lafayette, like New Orleans, has a unique ‘feel’ to its culture rooted in its appreciation of family, food and festivals; scored by world-renowned musicians and artists.

MARGARET TRAHAN: Lafayette is a big “little town” in the heart of the Cajun prairie inhabited by family-oriented people with big hearts, big vision and a wildcatter mentality. We have a vibrant energy industry and are a nexus for great health care. Our financial industry is strong and helps to support the entrepreneurs who are so influential in our city. We aren’t afraid to take risks or kick a few ant-hills along the way. We have great food, great music, a progressive business community and a non-profit sector that is connected to issues that matter.

JASON EL KOUBI: Lafayette is one of the most culturally interesting and vibrant places in the United States. As the “Hub City” of the Acadiana region (population ~600,000), it has its own distinctive language, food, and artistic traditions that are very much “alive” today — people love the culture and are generally proud of their community. In addition, it has a strong, growing economy with a significant energy industry presence and a palpable entrepreneurial spirit.

NATHAN NORRIS: Lafayette has a vibrant economy and is known for its exceptional food, music, people, can-do attitude and fiber-optic cable network. Its economy is driven primarily from the oil and gas service industry, health care and UL Lafayette.  Its special blend of Cajun and Creole culture make Lafayette not only warm and welcoming, but the most unique mid-sized Southern city.

You’ve decided to run for elective office or you’re coaching someone who is. Sell voters on your vision for Lafayette over the next four years.

GREGG GOTHREAUX: Implore business leaders to take a prominent role in determining the future of Lafayette by using influence from the positions they hold, the taxes they pay and the people they employ. This community needs to be more aesthetically pleasing. We need to employ true visionary processes. We need to care more about our next generation than about ourselves.

NATALIE HARDER: We have the opportunity to be the leader in education in Louisiana. Unprecedented and productive partnerships between K-12, SLCC, and UL are giving us the edge in workforce development.  With regional support our educational opportunities can also offer such a positive aspect of quality of life that we will be unstoppable in terms of attracting and retaining talent and business opportunities.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: We are poised for great things in the next four years. We have reached a tipping point. After years of attempts, we finally have a comprehensive vision for our future. Our economy is strong, and should continue to be so, given the strength of the energy sector. This is right time to bet on Lafayette, to make some wise investments in our future. Let’s not waste an opportunity to leverage this growth into an even greater future.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: We are a community that values family-friendly environments to safely nurture the skill sets and aspirations of our citizenry. We are a community flush with resources and unique landscapes capable of sustaining disruptive innovation. As we continue to merge our sense of community with our entrepreneurial spirit over the next four years, we shall enhance our capacity to benefit each and every person who calls or wishes to call Lafayette home.

MARGARET TRAHAN: Lafayette has all the ingredients it needs to be a truly great city whose people are educated, prosperous and safe. We have a comprehensive plan about to be launched by Lafayette Consolidated Government and the “100 Percent In/100% Out” plan developed by hundreds of citizens who aspire to an “A-rated” school district. It will take staying power and committed leadership to make these plans a reality. Change is tough, but it can be done if we focus on building common ground and seizing opportunity.  

JASON EL KOUBI: This is a special moment in time for our community. We are blessed with some enviable assets, including a culture we love and a strong, growing economy. However, our current position is somewhat fragile with many big, inevitable challenges ahead. The industrial boom across South Louisiana is going to create major strains on our workforce and infrastructure. And, even in the good times, history reminds us of the whims of national and global markets, especially in our energy sector. This pivotal moment presents an opportunity for us to create the future we want — to create new job opportunities by diversifying our economy, to advance a common vision around improving public education for our children, to plan for smarter growth through the Lafayette Comprehensive Plan, to reduce traffic congestion by investing in infrastructure, to strengthen UL and SLCC, to cultivate a strong workforce pipeline and attract new talent to our community, to accelerate economic growth and opportunity across Acadiana by leveraging our strength in numbers; we can do all of these things!  It starts by seizing this moment, taking stock of reality, and working together as a region to create the future we want — not just for the next four years, but for our children and grandchildren to enjoy for many more years to come.

NATHAN NORRIS: Lafayette has an opportunity to be that rare community that plants seeds for future prosperity during a time of prosperity as opposed to a time of crisis.  The key to preparing our community for future prosperity is to invest in a specific plan that increases our ability to attract and retain talented people and companies over the long haul.

To achieve this goal we should focus on three key issues that we have the ability to control and influence:

1. K-12 Education/Work Force Development.  

2. Community-Wide Quality of Life Enhancements/City Living as an Option.

3. Targeted Industry Development/Enhancing Collaboration between Business, Educational Institutions & Regional Partners.

We can accomplish this by modeling the effort after a similar effort in Oklahoma City called MAPS.  The keys to success are: (a)  only invest in well-defined, specific projects; (b) raise revenue for the projects with a time-limited tax such as a three to five year tax; (c) manage the projects with an independent entity that is supported by both the public and private sectors.
By taking this proactive approach we can enjoy prosperous times for generations to come.

What are the impediments to Lafayette achieving its potential as a great place to live?

GREGG GOTHREAUX: We are a great place to live and outside sources confirm that. In 2013 Lafayette was recognized at the number one MSA in the country by Area Development, as a top 10 American City of the Future by fDi Magazine; and most recently as a top 20 Best College Town in America by Travel and Leisure. To be a greater community going forward, we need a greater unity of vision for the future. See question 2.

NATALIE HARDER: Other communities which have achieved greatness had to create a road map, but also had a sense of urgency which resulted in their staying focused. Right now we are building the map, but I am not sure everyone shares in the sense of urgency. We cannot be complacent because our economy is improving.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: Our only impediment is complacency.

Through the comp plan our community has identified the basic roadblocks facing us. We place an unnecessary strain on our tax dollars by continuing to embrace sprawl-inducing public policies whose impact we’re just beginning to recognize. We have failed to invest in the types of amenities that will draw the next generation of entrepreneurs — parks, walkable communities, mixed-uses, greater housing choices. The infrastructure and community fabric is continuing to decline in our older businesses and neighborhoods. And we need to own up to our costly environmental realities. We live in a flat, flood prone area, but like our ancestors, we need to learn how to work with the land, using our flood plains in new innovative ways to improve drainage and increase recreational opportunities.

These are all large challenges, but they are not insurmountable, especially in a place as creative and willing to take risks on itself as Lafayette. Our biggest issue will be recognizing the need to face these challenges while we have the time, resources, and energy to do so, rather than waiting for the next crisis moment. We should cultivate a sense of urgency now to become the next great American city, and not wait until that urgency is forced upon us by the next economic downtown.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: Every community is at risk of not living up to its potential by allowing the status quo to rule the day. Great places to live are like great artists and athletes who hold fast to effective traditions while responsibly and ethically exploring innovations and new opportunities to achieve and maintain excellence.

MARGARET TRAHAN: The challenge is to get beyond the symptoms to create the conditions that support and sustain change efforts.  It takes political will and citizens who can be patient with the growing pains that come with transformation. Perfection is the enemy of innovation. We need to be able to live with that.

JASON EL KOUBI: The current dysfunction in the Lafayette Parish School Board is the most urgent obstacle that needs to be addressed. The actions being taken by the school board directly impact one of the most fundamental elements of our community’s quality of life: the public school options available to families (which in turn impact our area’s capacity for retaining, attracting, and expanding business investment and job opportunities). In addition, the business community recognizes that the school board also directly impacts the future workforce pipeline on which our area’s economic growth depends. We need a school board that will work together with a common vision focused on improving student achievement. The public education enhancements we make today will help address other impediments of all kinds in the future.

NATHAN NORRIS: Lafayette is already a great place to live. The impediments to making it even better are: (1) complacency that prevents adequate investment in education and quality of life issues; (2) the failure to provide high quality city living as an option (we only provide high quality rural and suburban living at this time) that can attract and retain high quality talent/companies; (3) continuing to invest in public infrastructure based upon its cost instead of its expected return on investment; and (4) the lack of street connectivity that negatively impacts our ability to get from one place to another.
 
Name a decision state lawmakers made in the last few years that negatively impact our region or has the potential to.

GREGG GOTHREAUX: I’ve written twice in ABiz about the need for tax reform in Louisiana. For years, state leadership has wrestled with Louisiana’s budget roller coaster. While there’s no magic solution that can remedy our state budget issues, there are measures that can be implemented which will work to stabilize the state budget and make Louisiana more competitive in the South. The Governor initiating the tax reform discussion was an exciting step in the right direction that unfortunately was not advanced. As a state, we’ve lost countless opportunities to better our economic outlook because of demagoguery in the state that has helped swing public opinion and shape negative stereotypes of Louisiana. Even today there are individuals who prey on the emotions and partialities of the citizenry to advance their own selfish agenda. They protect the status quo instead of seeing the hard task of true fiscal reform through to the end.

NATALIE HARDER: The state must stop disinvesting in higher education. SLCC and UL are the biggest providers of talented and skilled employees for Acadiana. We have three legs to our economy: IT, energy, and healthcare. There are many job openings in these sectors which go unfilled because higher ed is challenged to produce more graduates due to the high cost of these programs.  

KEVIN BLANCHARD: We have historically centralized too much power and decision-making authority on the state level. Local governments should be free to find creative solutions for local issues, rather than being hampered by a one-size-may-not-fit-all framework.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: When state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle follow in step with the national partisan culture of gridlocked inefficiency to ultimately influence decisions on issues that impact our region, it highlights proclivities to allow personal aspirations to supersede the greater good of their regional constituency.

MARGARET TRAHAN: The continued cuts to higher education budgets put all of Louisiana at risk for being able to provide affordable post-secondary educational opportunities. If we are going to have any role in a global, knowledge-based economy, we must preserve our public colleges and universities. There is no predictable pattern of state funding for higher education, so how do we retain excellence? How do we compete in the market when our universities do not have the freedom to set their own tuition rates?

JASON EL KOUBI: Over the last few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of tax exemptions, deductions, credits, rebates, and other related items in our state tax code. This growth has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars per year away from key priorities like higher education and transportation infrastructure with relatively little discussion, exacerbating the funding challenges for our public colleges and universities and deepening the backlog of transportation infrastructure priorities. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of this growth is not related to economic development incentives or the creation of new items in our state tax code. Rather, this growth is primarily due to increased utilization of long-standing provisions that have been baked into Louisiana’s very complex tax code for many years or even decades. To be sure, many of these items help maintain our state’s economic competitiveness and support other important policy goals. However, many others deserve a closer look to ensure they are still justified in light of competing state priorities. We should applaud the many state lawmakers who have worked hard to bring attention to this “passive” decision of state government, including Reps. Joel Robideaux and Taylor Barras in the Acadiana region for their leadership on the Revenue Study Commission.

Name a decision(s) by state lawmakers you applaud.

GREGG GOTHREAUX: The renewed, unified effort to bring I-49 South to reality. I-49 South represents both short and long-term economic prosperity for our region. The number one thing you can do to spur economic development is build a road. The stretch of Highway 90 from Lafayette to New Orleans is one of the top ten industrial corridors in the U.S. in terms of jobs per capita. Nearly one-third of the U.S. energy needs are supplied by production off of Louisiana shores. For every $1 billion invested in road construction, it generates $5.69 billion in economic output and 27,800 jobs.

NATALIE HARDER: SLCC is excited that with state support a new health and science building will go up on campus in a few years.  This new building will allow us to double our allied health graduates, make space in a current building for more IT programming, and quadruple the size of our Early College Academy.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: The State Legislature showed great foresight when it approved the sale of the Horse Farm property to the City of Lafayette in order to provide for a world-class park.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: Our state lawmakers support for the Entertainment Industry Tax Credit program has placed Louisiana in the distinguished position of leading the nation in production activity behind California and New York for years.

It would be short-sighted for us to not leverage this achievement to mandate that our educational institutions to also lead in entertainment industry curriculum development competitive with California and New York institutions to sustain long-term economic development in the entertainment and technology sectors.

MARGARET TRAHAN: I appreciate the solution that was devised to save the services provided by University Medical Center. The public-private partnership with Lafayette General Medical Center is a great example of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that has created a path for sustainable and quality health care access for low income families.

Another decision worth noting is one made recently by BESE.  Although they are not law-makers, they do set policy that affects every school district in Louisiana. Their recent decision to slow down the implementation of the Common Core State Standards made a lot of sense. Our teachers, given adequate time and support, can rise to the challenge of implementing these higher standards while addressing gaps in student achievement.  

JASON EL KOUBI: The passage of Act 1 in the 2012 legislative session is one of the single most important decisions made by state lawmakers in the last decade.  Prior to Act 1, teacher compensation and tenure practices had little connection to student results and school boards could freely meddle in personnel decisions. Act 1 made major improvements that have professionalized Louisiana’s public education system by empowering both teachers and schools. Among other things, Act 1 ensures that teacher tenure is earned based on performance, enables greater use of performance compensation, clarifies that superintendents (and not school boards) are responsible for most personnel matters, and provides a better structure for annual performance evaluations.  In addition to the leadership of Rep. Steve Carter and Sen. Conrad Appel (chairs of respective education committees), we should applaud the many other state lawmakers who supported Act 1, including those in the Acadiana region such as Sens. Bret Allain, Page Cortez and Elbert Guillory and Reps. Stuart Bishop, Simone Champagne, Bob Hensgens, Nancy Landry, Joel Robideaux and Ledricka Thierry.
 
Name a decision the Lafayette City-Parish Council or City-Parish President Joey Durel and/or Lafayette Parish School Board or Superintendent Pat Cooper made in the last few years that negatively impact our region or has the potential to.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: The City-Parish Council’s vote to revoke its approval of the location of a waste transfer facility in an unincorporated area near an existing neighborhood encapsulated a lot of what is wrong with our current development rules and procedures. The developer followed all applicable rules and regulations, and made an investment based on the reasonable reliance on those rules. The neighborhood, understandably, was not satisfied with the outcome allowed under the rules. This placed the council in a difficult spot, ultimately leading to a lawsuit and a costly settlement. We have begun re-writing our development rules in an attempt to avoid this kind of dysfunction in the future, so that our rules lead to better and more predictable outcomes.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: The tenor across the stakeholder spectrum regarding the direction of our school system resonates like the partisan political stalemates we find ourselves facing. Similarly, the needs of the people the system is designed to serve are being compromised by territorial agendas being played out in the media to the detriment of the service population and the attractiveness of our community.
By returning focus to servicing the students, we can commit to better assessing their needs, embrace the diversity of their socio-economic situations as critical to understanding their varying learning styles and evolve into an inclusive system that ultimately produces a sought after student body.  
 
MARGARET TRAHAN: I am very puzzled by the reluctance by many on the current Lafayette Parish School Board to mediate their differences with superintendent Dr. Cooper and to participate in a governance workshop to address how to best interpret Act 1 which came out of the 2012 Legislative Session. Act 1 re-defined the roles of the superintendent and the board. It makes sense to try to find the common ground on governance. It’s an essential first step to creating the conditions and providing the leadership to address low-performing schools.
 
JASON EL KOUBI: The Lafayette Parish School Board is marked by general dysfunction and has made several decisions in recent memory that appear to be mostly about adult personalities rather than student education. For example, the school board recently dismissed the district attorney as general counsel, a service provided at no cost to the school system for many years, and is now moving toward the use of private general counsel (which would unnecessarily shift significant financial resources from education to lawyers). The school board also expropriated the process of choosing a health insurance provider by hiring their own consultant (which ultimately led to substandard results and stop-gap measures), willfully disregarding the traditional vetting process by staff and teachers. Amidst this dysfunction, it is important to point out that a handful of school board members are consistently voting with the students.

Name a decision(s) by the CPC or LPSB you applaud.

GREGG GOTHREAUX: The decision of the City Parish Council to purchase the Horse Farm and the subsequent decision to move forward on plans to create a true community-owned central park shows the council’s willingness to look beyond the immediate future to what will benefit the community the most for generations to come. The quality of life benefits that the park will provide will signal to the nation that Lafayette is a serious economic development player because we have a vision and we understand what it means to be a great community. The decision of the Lafayette Parish School Board to approve $1 million toward the new Health Science building at South Louisiana Community College is also profound. Not only will this building house the newly-established RN program at SLCC, but it will also be the new home of the Early College Academy, the parish’s top performing high school. This high school will be a model in shaping Lafayette’s workforce of the future. From an economic development perspective, both programs will have an immediate and direct impact on the parish’s future.

NATALIE HARDER: Dr. Cooper’s creation and the LPSB approval of the “100% in - 100% out” turn around plan is crucial to our region becoming the leader for education in Louisiana. For SLCC, we appreciate their $1M support for the new health and sciences building to house 1000 Early College Academy students.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: At the risk of sounding self-serving, I think the City-Parish Council made a wise investment when they approved funding of the comprehensive planning effort. The results of that plan are going to be our community’s action items for the foreseeable future. But even more important than the plan itself is that we are becoming a community that plans. The council took the first step in that direction, recognizing the importance of planning, and they should be commended for taking that step.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: The collective support by all stakeholders to create a centralized park area for the community to preserve and enjoy will impact generations of citizens in an extremely positive and earth-friendly manner. It will be a unique opportunity for us to be able to recall the birth of this community asset.

MARGARET TRAHAN: Recently, LPSB unanimously approved $1 million in funding to the South Louisiana Community College to expand the Early College Academy. This partnership with SLCC will eventually graduate a 1000 students each year who will have an associate’s degree when they exit high school. Very cool!

JASON EL KOUBI: The Lafayette Parish School Board recently voted 9-0 to help fund a facilities expansion for the Early College Academy, which will enable significant growth of this successful educational model in partnership with the South Louisiana Community College. ECA currently enrolls about 250 students who will complete high school with an Associate’s degree from SLCC. Matched by significant funding from state government, the School Board’s decision will help expand ECA’s facilities with a new building at SLCC’s Lafayette campus, enabling ECA to grow to 1,000 students. In addition to addressing our area’s needs for an educated workforce, this expansion will provide significant tuition savings since ECA students earn a post-secondary degree at no cost to their families. This decision was a welcome exception to the general dysfunction displayed by the School Board in recent memory.

What is Lafayette’s greatest asset as a community?

GREGG GOTHREAUX: Lafayette’s greatest asset is our people.

NATALIE HARDER: At its foundation is the people who are entrepreneurial and hard working. On top of this is the growing recognition that with planning and commitment to some hard work, Lafayette can be better than cities like Austin and Seattle.

KEVIN BLANCHARD:  I am continuously impressed and amazed with our can-do, wildcatter attitude. We are the best place to live, work, eat, dance, and raise a family and we don’t need national publications to tell us that (although it’s nice to be recognized). This isn’t an accident. Our community has always been built by risk-takers who bet on their own abilities, and we continue to attract those types of people. The LUS Fiber project was a great example of this — sure, there was an element of risk heading out into the telecommunications world, but we were betting on ourselves, and no one was going to be able to convince us we couldn’t pull it off. When we can put this collective attitude to good use, we can move mountains.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: Lafayette’s greatest asset is its citizens. We are an extremely connected community, which makes even our most influential citizens accessible. In turn, when our citizenry sees a logical avenue for our community to thrive, even in less familiar arenas, they tend to embrace the opportunity with a zeal to be competitive rather than just being in the game.

MARGARET TRAHAN: Engaged, generous citizens who are not averse to taking risks and investing in solutions to the things that matter to them.

JASON EL KOUBI: We have a very engaged, energized community of people who want to build on this area’s strong heritage and are willing to make tough decisions to create the best possible future for the Lafayette area. Along with our partner organizations, the Greater Lafayette Chamber is a vehicle for helping our community realize its aspirations and priorities as we work together to create a vibrant, prosperous future. Specifically, we are creating the organizational capacity for advancing an intelligent, proactive strategy on the most important issues to our community’s economic future. The future we create should leverage and honor the extraordinarily rich culture and entrepreneurial spirit of the people in Acadiana.

NATHAN NORRIS: It’s unique culture.

What asset does Lafayette need to work harder at maximizing?

GREGG GOTHREAUX: Our entrepreneurial spirit needs to be nurtured. We need new and more leaders to step up in the community and help guide and shape our future. Lafayette’s 1 Gig fiber connectivity needs to be exploited by business. UL Lafayette, SLCC, and the business community should continue coming together through creative collaborations for the betterment of our citizens. Businesses and UL Lafayette need to work together on creative collaborations to cultivate the reputation of the University, the city and our businesses. Business and community leaders need to come together to fulfill Lafayette’s destiny as one of the premier cities in the South.

NATALIE HARDER: Its ability to be the educational leader in LA; unlimited access to high quality education at every level crosswalks personal and professional needs.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: We need to do a better job at maximizing our return on investment from public spending. This is a conservative area, and rightfully so, but we have to move beyond the concept of merely wanting to keep taxes low (and our taxes are the lowest in the state, probably the Gulf South) and move on to the more important question: “What do we get in exchange for our tax dollars?” When we spend money on a road project in a newly developed area, for example, are we taking into the account the cost of providing other government services in that area? As we develop more flood prone areas of the parish (we’ve developed all the high ground), are we taking into account the cost of new drainage projects, or the cost of flood insurance for consumers there? And because our current zoning and subdivision rules that make it more difficult for developers to build denser, mixed-use developments, we are leaving future tax revenues on the table — a denser development, like River Ranch or downtown, has a much higher yield back to taxpayers than a traditional residential or commercial development. Why not start considering all of these factors when we decide how to spend our limited tax dollars? There’s no business in the world that doesn’t consider return on investment — why shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same standard with taxpayer dollars?   

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: Lafayette has been touted as a creative community for years and a truly creative culture is sustained, supported and incentivized by active stakeholders and benefactors. It is critically important that we maximize our abundant resources to fuel the aspirations of our most creative individuals so that they do not have to look elsewhere to facilitate their vision. This level of support affords us the benefit of appreciating our local innovators first, while inspiring other community members to adopt similar pursuits that also influences positive growth.

MARGARET TRAHAN: Our school buildings are a huge community asset and they are literally crumbling before our eyes. Furthermore, larger numbers of students are housed in temporary buildings each year. For the children who inhabit those schools, I wonder what message it sends when the adults can’t or won’t agree on how to make it better. How can we tell students that education is important and then not invest in the infrastructure?  

JASON EL KOUBI: As we strive to make Lafayette the best community possible, we need to better leverage our relationships and align our efforts with the rest of the Acadiana region. If we don’t think and act more regionally, we will play in the small-community league instead of effectively competing with other regions of our size (i.e., more than 600,000 people). The Greater Lafayette Chamber will be very proactive about working with partner organizations, especially other local chambers and economic development organizations, to address major issues and accelerate economic growth across the entire Acadiana region. Many of the top priorities of the business community — things like major transportation infrastructure and workforce development--are inherently regional in nature. Furthermore, our community has an opportunity for greater strength and progress at the State Capitol by advancing a regional legislative agenda. To create an economic future in line with our aspirations, our region will need to work together and make a substantial effort to upgrade our capabilities with new investment from the business community. That will help to create a bigger pie overall and accelerate economic growth for everyone.

NATHAN NORRIS: Given the focus our community puts on food (in comparison to other communities), it is surprising that we have not focused greater attention on integrating this interest and expertise into a well-defined economic development strategy that more aggressively ties together our educational institutions, restaurants, farmers and other food-related businesses.

What is the greatest threat to Lafayette’s prosperity and future growth?

GREGG GOTHREAUX: Creeping negativity. In a time when the community is doing the best we ever have, when there are more opportunities for young people, and the future looks the brightest; there are those individuals who cannot overcome themselves. Their negative attitudes infect those around them. They must put the community’s well-being above their own interests.

NATALIE HARDER: Disengagement by business leaders in ensuring all levels of governance are making decisions that move our community forward.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: The most immediate threat to our prosperity and future growth is the current state of our school system. We need to be investing more in our children. Spending per pupil in Lafayette Parish ranks near the bottom (60th out of 69th) in our state. Let that sink in: in a state that ranks near the bottom in most measures of educational success, Lafayette Parish is at the bottom. We excel in so many things in Lafayette. Our economy is strong. We have a great culture of innovation. We stand out on a national scale for these things, and take pride every time we make a new Top 10 list. But our school system, judged nationally, is mediocre at best.

We need to be challenging our students with higher expectations. At the same time, we need to be providing them the type of support that some of their parents are not able to provide. Dr. Cooper’s 100% In, 100% Out Plan gives us a chance to become a model for the rest of the nation, start solving our infrastructure problems, develop a next-generation workforce, and finally begin addressing the roots of many of our social problems. As a community, we should be demanding to give that plan a chance to work.    

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: The greatest threat to our prosperity and growth is resting on our laurels, which compels us to miss growth opportunities. In order to continue our success, we need people to continue to push themselves and their organizations to continue to embrace innovation, creativity and diversity while resisting inclinations to oppose the trends and influences of each.

MARGARET TRAHAN: To prosper and grow in the future Lafayette must set conditions to retain and attract young professionals. We need to involve them in our future planning, provide them with leadership opportunities and cultivate their talents. The formation of the consolidated plan was a step in the right direction. Every time one of our young families or individuals leave our region, we suffer for the loss of what might have been.

JASON EL KOUBI: As with many things, our community’s greatest strength can also be our greatest threat. We are blessed with proud cultural traditions that create strong social bonds and attract visitors from around the world. We enjoy a growing economy that is consistently creating new opportunities for families, businesses, and entrepreneurs. We have avoided the devastation that natural disasters have wrought in other parts of south Louisiana over the last ten years. In short, we are generally proud, prosperous, and feel a little less vulnerable than other communities. But we must not let our blessings breed complacency. We must bear in mind that the good times offer the best opportunity — and perhaps a fleeting opportunity--to plan boldly, dig deep, and press forward together.

NATHAN NORRIS: Complacency is our greatest threat as it has the potential for us to continue to ignore: (a) education/workforce development issues;  (b) the opportunity to compete for talented people/companies with other cities that already provide high quality city living; and (c) the power of leveraging regional relationships with other cities and parishes.

If Lafayette does nothing in terms of maximizing our assets, where will we be in 10 or 20 years?

GREGG GOTHREAUX: Average, at best, or below average.

NATALIE HARDER: Infrastructure — in every sense of the word — which is currently strained will be failing. This will result in fewer individuals wanting to live here (including our children) and businesses unable to commit to locating or growing in our region.

KEVIN BLANCHARD: Because our core economic drivers are so strong, by default, we will likely continue to be a good place to live, at least in comparison to the rest of our state. This is the root of our complacency. But if we don’t do a better job at maximizing our assets, then we will have missed out on the opportunity to become the next great American city. Generations ago, through investments like the Oil Center, we were able to attract high-paying energy jobs. To take the next step we need different investments — the type that will improve our quality of life and sense of place, in order to attract the next generation of high-paying jobs.  

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: Lafayette will find itself riding the ebbs and flows of the energy industry with evolutionary growth in its other sectors if we do nothing further to maximize our assets. Our opportunity to become one of the most sought after places to live in the country will be lost in the perception that we are already as competitive as we need to be already. Professional development and intellectual property investment in growth sectors like cloud technology and entertainment content while enhancing fiscal support to creative community initiatives will cultivate the inherent assets as well as the future growth and competitiveness of our community.

MARGARET TRAHAN: Lafayette risks getting “passed by” by other cities if it does not maximize assets. If local citizens do not rally and continue to press forward on educational, business, political and community issues, we will fall behind other cities that are moving forward. Lafayette, if it does not remain competitive, would then likely miss out on opportunities for corporations looking to locate or invest in the region, thereby threatening growth and economic prosperity.

JASON EL KOUBI: If we don’t make strategic decisions and maximize our assets now, our local community and our entire region will see small threats turn into crisis situations and will miss opportunities of all sizes over the next 10 or 20 years. With rapid economic growth in the Lake Charles area and along the Mississippi River corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, we’ll recognize that we grew more slowly and created less economic opportunity than other regions in south Louisiana. We’ll regret that we did little to diversify our economy when times were good, knowing that we could have been less vulnerable to downturns in global energy markets. We’ll realize that we made much less progress than other areas in terms of improving public education, accelerating workforce development, building and maintaining transportation infrastructure, planning for smarter growth, and preserving the things we love about our culture. We’ll add 10 or 20 to the number of years that various plans and projects have been “talked about” with little more than dust on shelves to show for it. As a result, we’ll have worse challenges in our public schools, greater gridlock on our roads, and a persistent concern that we’re not so special anymore. We’ll see less cooperation and more fracturing across parish and municipal lines, as we’re currently witnessing in other parts of Louisiana. We’ll look back on a lot of ups and downs that should have been better anticipated and intentionally controlled. We’ll wish that our children and grandchildren could find better jobs in Acadiana. We’ll have the deep lament of a place that once had opportunity to do something great when times were good but missed that special moment in time due to lack of urgency and a failure of political will.
 
NATHAN NORRIS: At a competitive disadvantage to other cities who are currently planting the seeds to be better in 10 to 20 years.

Feel free to make any additional comments about Lafayette’s future.

GREGG GOTHREAUX: We need to encourage the wildcatter mentality that put us at the top of so many lists by growing the entrepreneurial network in Lafayette. We need to intentionally grow that network and look to other successful cities to share best practices. We need to continue developing “social capital” in addition to financial capital. It’s the community’s innate wildcatter mentality that holds the community together. It’s what got us to where we are today and it’s what will propel us into a more successful future. The future is bright and we each have a vital role to play.

MARCUS LYLE BROWN: As almost lifelong citizens of Lafayette, engaging so many different aspects of our community as an artist, academic and entrepreneur, my wife, Yvette, and our families are proud citizens with a deep appreciation for its resources, opportunities and beauty. As we work to produce a feature film in the coming year almost exclusively in the community, we have been met with overwhelming support and encouragement that is hard to find elsewhere. We look forward to continuing to contribute to Lafayette’s creative culture and economic development in unison with the values and sensibilities of our neighbors.

JASON EL KOUBI: Public education is the most urgent policy issue for most of our members. There is a huge degree of concern in the business community about the current dysfunction in the Lafayette Parish School Board; we need a school board that will work together with a common vision focused on improving student achievement. Other priorities include transportation infrastructure (including I-49 South), the Lafayette Comprehensive Plan, and workforce development. The Chamber board recently approved a robust plan of action focused on these issues in 2014. In terms of how to address these issues, we will be research-based, proactive, and strategic on all fronts.

In addition, the Chamber will be very proactive about working with partner organizations, especially other local chambers and economic development organizations, to address major issues and accelerate economic growth across the entire Acadiana region. A big part of our plan for 2014 and beyond will focus on creating greater regional leverage and alignment across Acadiana.


THE FIX: CONSOLIDATION AND TAXES

moneybagsAs part of his IND-sponsored State of the Parish Address last year at the Cajundome Convention Center, City-Parish President Joey Durel told the audience he wanted to assemble a “blue-ribbon committee” to study taxes and revenue in Lafayette Parish. Durel later assembled a small working group to look into the issue, but eventually abandoned it, realizing that the topic is far too complex for a part-time group of well-meaning citizens to tackle meeting just once a week — the members’ expertise, competence and commitment notwithstanding.

The City-Parish Council during the course of 2013 brought the issue to the fore in its on-again, off-again debate about repealing the rebate merchants receive for collecting and remitting sales taxes. The repeal effort failed, but the public debate underscored a pressing issue: Lafayette Consolidated Government either needs more revenue or we the citizens need to dial back our expectations for the services government can and should provide. You want good roads, bridges, schools and police and fire protection, and you want amenities like parks and bike paths, festivals and arts centers on top of that? Well. Isn’t that special?

Relative to other prosperous parishes in Louisiana, Lafayette has a low tax burden. We spend less on public education than most other parishes. But Lafayette Parish as a separate legal entity is gasping for air as it treads water, and this is a built-in flaw of the form of “consolidated” government we voted for in 1992 and implemented four years later.

Lafayette Parish isn’t consolidated. The city of Lafayette and unincorporated Lafayette Parish are the legal entity called Lafayette Consolidated Government, and their books are separate. City revenue can’t be spent in the parish and vice versa. That’s what’s on paper anyway.

Five of the six municipalities in the parish — Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville — opted out of consolidation. They are separate, autonomous entities whose residents pay some parish property taxes. And every time one of the cities annexes an unincorporated area of the parish, it siphons away parish sales taxes being generated in that area. Those taxes — sales taxes in unincorporated Lafayette along with parish property taxes — fund the jail, the sheriff’s office, the district court system and other agencies, and the revenue generated isn’t enough to maintain these vital functions of government. Most of the revenue goes to maintenance of the jail even as a courthouse that serves hundreds of thousands of residents goes to seed.

Moreover, the city of Lafayette’s Public Works Department, which owns the tractors, backhoes, dump trucks, mowers and other heavy equipment used to move heck and high water and all of which breaks down, depreciates and must be replaced, tends to the needs of unincorporated Lafayette Parish. The other towns watch idly and mind their own business. On paper anyway, the parish pays the city for the services. But when the backhoe needs to be replaced, it’s city tax dollars doing the replacing.

There are roughly 60,000 people living in unincorporated Lafayette Parish. They are the responsibility of none of the municipalities in terms of providing infrastructure. Their roads, their bridges, their water management needs are borne by Lafayette Parish Government, whose needs are more or less underwritten by the city of Lafayette. A time will come in the not too distant future — if we kick the fiscal can down the road — when there is no money to replace a bridge, no funding to mitigate the flood waters.

Since the 2010 census the city has grown 1.25 percent but the unincorporated parish has grown 2.5 percent. That’s double the rate of population growth in “no man’s land.” Yet it is really the city of Lafayette — the economic engine of the entire parish — that bears the weight of that growth. We’re on a trajectory that cannot be sustained.

The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce proposed a “Fair & Focused Plan” to address this — a plan that would give the city of Lafayette greater autonomy over its fiscal affairs by creating a five-member city council within the nine-member City-Parish Council. But the council rejected it. And no Fair & Focused Plan addresses the urgent need to re-evaluate how taxes are levied, where they’re levied and at what level.

Until we fix consolidation, making it equitable for Lafayette rather than at the jeopardy of the city of Lafayette’s prosperity, and tax ourselves at a level that covers the actual expenses of government services, the best that we can hope for is to remain a good place to live (even then, in spite of ourselves). But we will never be a great place to live. — The Editors


POPULATION

224,110
Lafayette Parish population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Communities Survey

66.8
Percentage of Lafayette Parish that is white
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

24.5
Percentage of Lafayette Parish that is black
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

51.4
Percentage of Lafayette Parish population age 34 or younger
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)


 

THE FIX: ELECT THE LEADERS WE DESERVE

voteParalytic dysfunction by the Lafayette Parish School Board? Anti-arts/culture parsimony on the City-Parish Council? We’ve no one to blame but ourselves — we elected ’em and we’re stuck with ’em for at least four years.

Since hiring Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper near the end of 2011, the LPSB has devolved into a slow-motion wreck that would make Michael Bay twitch with envy. And despite the board approving Cooper’s turnaround plan and then often working to undermine it, student outcomes among LPSS students are at an all-time high, and the district, with a solid B rating, has risen from 21st to 19th among Louisiana’s 74 school districts.

To attain an A and reach the upper echelon of districts where we know we belong, Cooper must be given the time and the board cooperation for the plan to bear fruit. That means electing school board members this fall who understand putting students ahead of parochial interests and who recognize that Act 1 of the 2012 legislative session divested them of the power to meddle in personnel issues. And, by golly, can we elect board members who actually have the personal time to attend meetings and workshops?

Same with council in 2015. Some councilmen get their marching orders from the tea party, which is about as representative of Lafayette as a macaroni casserole. Like the U.S. House of Representatives, they seem to see their role as saying no to any expenditure, any increase in revenue, any imperative that enhances quality of life.

If we do nothing as we approach the 2020 census and the very real possibility that the city of Lafayette will lose its five-seat majority on the council, we might find ourselves in a future where rural, anti-progressive council members dictate to the city of Lafayette whether it underwrites Festival International or builds a new convention center or helps social service nonprofits aid the disadvantaged and the distressed.

Elections matter.


EDUCATION

19th
Lafayette Parish’s rank among 74 school districts in the state; up from 21st in the previous ranking

888
Number of public school students in Lafayette Parish who are 3 years or more behind and not on grade level; 61 percent of these students are black males (3,481 students are 2 years or more behind, of which 43 percent are black males)

14
Number of LPSS schools that improved a letter grade during the 2013-2013 school year; that’s one third of all schools

4th
UL Lafayette’s rank among U.S. universities for helping lower-income students earn degrees


 

THE FIX: COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

protracterIf you’ve ever sat in inch-along traffic on Johnston Street — and who hasn’t? — you know Lafayette hasn’t historically devoted much thought to planning. Like most small towns in America, we just spread out as we grew, with an emphasis on out. The result: sprawl, congestion and strained infrastructure.

The issue of comprehensively planning for our future growth — a process that is well under way with the Lafayette Comprehensive Plan — speaks to the other two sidebars in this Vision Issue: electing the right leaders, and how to best and most effectively harness a consolidated government that’s hardly consolidated while paying for our imperatives.

LCG’s comp plan applies only to the city of Lafayette and the unincorporated parish, although that’s a majority of the acreage in the parish. It’s a smart plan that emphasizes mixed use, density, being able to walk or bicycle for transportation. And it spreads out these imperatives across LCG’s geographic area of influence, preserving our rural countryside to the greatest extent possible.

The basic premise is that, no matter where you live in Lafayette, you should be able to work, to play, to send your kids to school in a relatively condensed area. The less the traffic the longer the road lasts. The plan will attempt to achieve these goals, more or less, not by mandates but rather by incentives: build here and build this way and the government will make it easy.

But the comp plan will take years to achieve, and it will span over many election cycles. We must elect leaders with the vision and the patience to see it through, and we must be willing to accept that progress isn’t free. Dedicated taxes with expiration dates and taxing districts must be part of the equation.

There will always be strip malls, but we can definitely do better. And we can do smarter.


 

ECONOMY

8.6
Percent gain in employment for metro Lafayette between December 2011 and December 2012 — the best in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

7th
Lafayette’s ranking among American metro areas for income disparity; we have a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty

5.5
Percent in real growth of gross domestic product for Lafayette for 2011, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis; that’s 14th best in the U.S.

24th
Lafayette rank in the Milken Institute’s 2012 Best Performing Cities list — up 69 spots among 200 large metro areas; Lafayette was tops in job growth and second for wage growth

 

 

 

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