20100804-re-0101Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Lafayette’s top elected official is earning a hardy pat on the back.

Praising politicians generally causes me to twitch. Praising Republicans — think Lee Atwater, Karl Rove and the Southern Strategy — gives me a more pronounced palsy. But Joey Durel, our two-term Republican city-parish president, deserves praise. In spades.

His proposal that Lafayette Consolidated Government budget $5 million to purchase the horse farm from UL and turn it into a public park threw many in the community into a state of pleasant surprise. Sales tax revenue is down, the drilling moratorium may well sink its teeth into our hide, and the nationwide economy looks like it’s slowing down to parallel park. These are typically not the tea leaves that portend government investment in anything other than critical infrastructure.

Durel’s call to acquire the horse farm, turn it over to the non-profit Community Foundation of Acadiana through a cooperative-endeavor agreement and get the park open within a few years came within weeks of his administration announcing new funding models for non-governmental social service agencies and arts/culture nonprofits, including a separate line item for the Acadiana Center for the Arts — $285,000 annually to cover operating expenses — that represents a nine-fold increase in city-parish government’s funding of the taxpayer-owned and -operated facility.

These proposals deserve our applause. These proposals at this particular time deserve a prolonged ovation.

They must still clear a formidable hurdle — the Lafayette City-Parish Council — and the administration will probably have a particularly tough time selling it to members of Durel’s own party, a couple of whom have proven to be adversarial toward such discretionary spending. And the Democrats on the council could balk simply because these proposals are coming from a Republican administration, but I’ve long been impressed by how little day-to-day traction the national political dynamic — Republicans versus Democrats, tearing at each others’ throats — has on local politics.
Durel needs five votes to pull this off. I think he’ll get them. Promising councilmen that their names will be engraved on a bronze plaque at the entrance of a beautiful central park for Lafayette, a perpetual attaboy for their forward-thinking governance, would be the perfect sweetener.

It would be a surprise if our city-parish president hasn’t yet been labeled a RINO — Republican In Name Only — within the keening conservative circles of our red little parish. If you ask me, he deserves it; this shine he’s taken to culture and recreation seems un-Republican. I’m well aware, however, that no one asked me.

I joked with Durel some time ago that he should “pull a Bloomberg,” as in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and drop the R to became an independent. He didn’t take the bait, but I’m hoping he’ll reconsider.

According to Durel, this newfound embrace of such extravagances as arts centers and public spaces comes from the acknowledgement that museums and parks are more than quality of life contributors; they are small-bore engines of economic development. They help draw in visitors from neighboring towns as well as new businesses and residents. I know, I know, I’m sounding like a scratched CD, but it bears repeating.

Yes, we need good roads and public schools, too. But investing in our cultural and recreational life, especially when clouds are darkening the horizon, transmits optimism. It says to outsiders and reinforces among ourselves that Lafayette is hopeful about the future.

Mr. Durel, don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

O, wait, can I rephrase that?

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