Lafayette Travel headed Downtown. Thruway Visitors center to remain ‘until the bulldozers come’ on I-49

The gist: Lafayette’s tourism bureau will move its administrative offices Downtown from its current offices on the Evangeline Thruway. The visitors center on site will remain until it’s forced to make way for the I-49 Connector.

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Lafayette Travel will be on Lafayette Street by August. Renovations on the new space, next door to the Alexandre Mouton House, are expected to cost just over $900,000. Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission CEO Ben Berthelot says the new, larger facility can accommodate the commission’s expanded staff. A location Downtown puts the travel bureau where most visitors go first, the city’s central business district. LCVC was also courted to Moncus Park and the University Avenue corridor, but the space next to one of the city’s signature museums made too much sense to pass up, Berthelot says.

An eventual move has been in the works for more than a decade, Berthelot tells me. His predecessor established a reserve to relocate, knowing the I-49 Connector would one day require the facility to leave. By agreement with the state, the structures that currently house LCVC are temporary buildings, able to be moved to accommodate the Connector, a project that’s been in the works haltingly since the early 1990s.

“We can’t continue to invest there when we might get moved by an interstate,” he says, explaining why they couldn’t justify expanding office space at the current location.

The move took heat from Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux who highlighted the exit as yet another example of disinvestment of public resources on Lafayette’s northside. “A million dollar investment into [Downtown] and a future abandonment of North Lafayette period,” he wrote on Facebook. LCVC’s departure follows the devastating closure of the Northside Walmart last month. Boudreaux has also begun stumping for a new public library east of I-49, using the issue to emphasize enduring disparities on either side of the Thruway.

Berthelot insists LCVC will stay until the Connector forces his organization out and that the bureau will continue to maintain the property and the median across from the recently closed Walmart. He tells me the visitors center is committed to the north gateway “until the bulldozers come.”

Why this matters. The northside’s decline has been long and painful. With little movement to reverse a troubling trend, even a relatively small departure such as LCVC’s salts the wound. Investment of public resources in Downtown Lafayette is often viewed by northside representatives as coming at the expense of providing opportunity to their long-suffering neighborhoods.

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LUS exploring EV infrastructure

The gist: LUS is in the early stages of pursuing a pilot program to add electric vehicle charging stations to its portfolio and buy electric forklifts for its warehouse.

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If funded, the pilot could put chargers at the Target shopping center on Louisiana Avenue  but isn’t limited to that location. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says work is very much preliminary and not related to surveys underway for a Tesla supercharger at the same site. LUS is also researching EV policies and approaches in major regional markets to write a local one.

LUS applied for funding through Louisiana’s allotment of VW’s settlement program, which is paying billions in atonement money for the German automaker’s use of software to cheat emission standards tests on its diesel fleet. As part of its settlement with the EPA, VW established a $2.9 billion trust to pay for programs that reduce diesel emissions. Louisiana received around $20 million from the trust. It’s that pot of money LUS is after for the pilot.  

This is the second time LUS applied for the VW money. The utility’s first attempt at funding through the trust wasn’t successful. A second round was opened this year, according to Stewart, and last week LUS turned its application, which asks for more than $150,000 in grants.

LUS is at the beginning stages of a major power planning process called an integrated resource plan. Stewart says LUS has shortlisted four consultants to assist LUS on the IRP and will bring those candidates in for staff presentations in the coming weeks. He’s hoping to have a contract in place by June. A big part of the IRP is projecting the future of power demand, i.e. how much electricity the city will need, and how to meet the demand. Stewart has positioned this iteration of the process to be more public than previous go-rounds, saying in recent interviews that he wants the public to help create a vision for the future of the electric utility.

Meanwhile, automakers are investing billions in EV fleets. Lafayette has been criticized for lagging behind national (and even regional) adoption of EV infrastructure. Industry movement is now difficult to ignore. VW itself plans to spend $80 billion over the next five years developing EVs and outfitting them with batteries, according to The Economist, ultimately producing 20 million electric cars in the next decade.

Why this matters. EVs are only one disruption the utility industry faces. Bernhard Capital Partners criticized LUS’s lack of innovation and flexibility when the private equity firm pursued purchasing the right to manage the utility. LUS has been more proactive in the last couple of years exploring renewable energy and other disruptive technologies, contracting wind power from the midwest last year, but nevertheless has been cautious to dive into a fast-moving space.

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Attorney Josh Guillory, a former congressional candidate, enters the race for mayor-president

The gist: And now there are two. Former LCG Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar has at least one challenger, attorney and former congressional candidate Josh Guillory.

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“I am running for mayor-president of Lafayette,” Guillory said on KPEL Wednesday morning (though as of late Wednesday afternoon he’d not yet changed his “I’m considering running” Facebook post from Monday to “I’m running”). Guillory has been contemplating a run since at least early December, when I first contacted him, but sources say he also was eyeing a couple of judicial races in recent weeks. Attempts to reach Guillory this week were unsuccessful.

First-term Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who made a surprise announcement Friday morning that he won’t seek re-election, is an independent-turned-Republican. Alm-LaBar has no party affiliation, and Guillory is a Republican. Guillory was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins in October, running third behind another political newcomer, Democrat Mimi Methvin. Higgins was easily re-elected in November.  

More to come? Most eyes seem to be turning to Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, another Republican. Ritter, who’s also been mulling an m-p run since late last year, has reportedly been making the rounds to potential financial supporters. “I’m honored that I was just re-elected without opposition and really proud of the work we’re doing in Youngsville,” Ritter told me in a mid-November interview. “I am watching what’s going on there. It has been difficult to sit idle and watch the challenges in parish government. … It’s my opinion that we certainly have more that should unite Lafayette Parish than what divides us,” he added. “It’s a leadership issue.” The interview was conducted just weeks after a public battle between Ritter and Robideaux over drainage problems in Youngsville was ultimately worked out in Youngsville’s favor. It was clear from the interview that Ritter hoped Robideaux would have opposition. Ritter did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

What to watch for: The money. Who can raise it. Alm-LaBar has the early advantage having been the only candidate to oppose Robideaux at the time of his bowing out. She announced a $150,000 haul over the weekend, but some Republican money will start flowing to Guillory and any other Rs who might enter the race. Robideaux and Dee Stanley were neck and neck in fundraising leading up to the 2015 primary, though Robideaux had significantly more cash on hand (mainly from leftover legislative race funds) and was able to outmatch Stanley in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 24 election. Campaign finance reports show Robideaux raised $71,000 in the home stretch to Stanley’s $40,000 — $22,000 of which was a loan to himself.

Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar gave seed money to The Current in 2018.

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Robideaux’s ‘mission accomplished’ optimism obscures a troubling reality

The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.

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How the punks are saving a folk art

Teaming up with the Center for Louisiana Studies, artist Chrysi Forton is saving Acadiana’s flyer art before it burns out or fades away.

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Robideaux bows out of re-election bid in sudden announcement

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will not seek re-election, he announced in a press conference Friday morning. Over the past year, his administration has battled a string of controversies, leading some political observers to view him as a weakened incumbent.

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It’s not clear what spurred the decision. He did not take questions from the press, hurrying out of his conference room at city hall after reading from a prepared statement. Robideaux has said casually in public appearances for months that he intended to run, treating the prospect as a given. Since the beginning of the year, he’s ramped up his social media presence, using more routine posts to raise his visibility in a campaign year. The Advocate reported in February that he had little money raised for a run, prompting questions about his vulnerability. Robideaux rebutted that story on his Facebook page.

“Lafayette is in the best financial position it’s ever been,” because of his administration’s fiscal policies, he said at the conference, reading solemnly from typed remarks. He cited the pending sale of the old federal courthouse and recent economic gains, along with progress at the parish no-kill animal shelter and revitalizing the University Avenue corridor — both campaign promises — as key accomplishments. “Our future is very exciting. I have done what I was elected to do.”

Robideaux had drawn a challenger for the upcoming race, a somewhat unusual occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette. Carlee Alm-LaBar, who served as planning director under Robideaux, announced a bid last month. Rumors of other candidates yet to enter are swirling around political circles, but no others have materialized.

Disclosure: Alm-LaBar provided some seed money The Current in 2018.

The mayor-president has faced controversies, some unresolved, that have accumulated over the past 18 months. Most recently, federal authorities have begun investigating accusations of impropriety surrounding Marcus Bruno, a mayoral aide, linked to a federally backed loan Bruno received through a nonprofit that provides financing to small businesses. Last year, Robideaux faced public uproar for courting a contract to privatize management of LUS, a pursuit that transpired out of public view for almost two years. The affair began a marked deterioration in his relationship with the City-Parish Council; the mistrust appears to have only worsened in recent months.  

An hour earlier, Robideaux spoke with interested developers on site at the Buchanan Garage Downtown. He appeared very much engaged in the redevelopment project, taking some pointed questions from developer Tim Supple and promoting the site as an opportunity to leverage Downtown development to reap economic benefit for the parish as a whole.

What to watch for: Who steps into the race and how Robideaux finishes out his only term. It’s not likely that Alm-LaBar will run unopposed. Robideaux’s appearance at the Buchanan Garage arguably indicates he intends to shepherd through initiatives he cares about.

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Old federal courthouse developers extended inspection period but say project is still on time

The gist: The team redeveloping Downtown’s old federal courthouse requested an extension on the 60-day due diligence period back in February and have yet to file for a building permit. Nevertheless, they maintain the project is on schedule to start construction in June.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux successfully navigated a sale of the long-vacant building through the council to a private development team for $1.4 million, a feat that had eluded proponents for more than a decade. As contracted, the project would place 68 housing units and 25,000 square feet of new commercial space on a prominent street corner. It represents an important domino in toppling the district’s residential development quagmire. Skepticism has clouded the project since the beginning, strung along by a lack of new information.

"Everything is moving along smoothly,” Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats told the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, noting the purchase of the old federal courthouse and adjoining properties will close in May. Oats provided the status update at Councilman Jay Castille’s request, and has served as the project’s default spokesman since last year. Castille has questioned the aggressive timeline set by the administration and the experience of the Place de Lafayette project’s team led by financier E.J. Krampe III and contractor Jim Poche.

Construction activity must begin by July 1 or the developers will face a $25,000 monthly fine, according to the contract. The inspection extension does not move the start date or the substantial completion date of December 31, 2020, which still backstop the project timeline.

The timeline is doable but leaves little room for error. For comparison, Developer Stephen Ortego tells me permitting on his Vermilion Lofts mixed use development Downtown took six months to complete. Even quick turnarounds on permits are measured in weeks or often months. “It moves as fast as you push it,” he says. Ortego was part of a team that pitched unsuccessfully for the old federal courthouse.

Variances could be the real hurdle. Going through the Board of Zoning Adjustment can be a lengthy process, especially if there’s any back and forth on variances requested. Ortego says the process can take three months, but that developers can pursue a building permit simultaneously.

"I'm assuming from the drawings they will have to go BOZA," Ortego says, referring to the rendering posted during the Robideaux Report last month. As depicted, for instance, it appears some newly constructed buildings on the site could be set too far back from the sidewalk under Downtown's development codes, he says, requiring a variance. It's unclear if the drawing represents a final concept. Calls to Krampe, Poche and project architect Dyke Nelson were not returned.

A rendering of the Place de Lafayette project tweeted by the mayor-president and unveiled at the Robideaux Report last month.

What’s your definition of commencement? According to their contract with LCG, the developers at minimum would need to put up construction fencing with contractor signage, begin interior demolition and roll trailers and other equipment on site. It’s possible that work could be accomplished without a building permit issued, I’m told by sources with development experience. Whether it would pass a skeptical council’s smell test is another question.

Why this matters: The old federal courthouse is a big deal for Downtowners and the mayor-president, who has held the project up as a signature win for his administration. Should something go sideways, it could let air out of recent Downtown enthusiasm and devalue an important accomplishment for the mayor-president’s re-election bid.

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Celebrating 20 years, PACE comes full circle

Artist Ben Guidry’s first taste of Picasso was through PACE. Nearly 20 years later, he’s paying it forward as a teacher in the program.

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Council votes to put library funds transfer on ballot, but not without changes or rancour

The gist: The City-Parish Council voted Tuesday night to call an election this fall to redirect $10 million of the library’s $26 million fund balance to unidentified infrastructure and parks and rec projects.

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That’s less than originally proposed — and with an allocation for parks. An amendment offered by Councilman Jay Castille moved $2 million to parks and $8 million to drainage. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s original proposal, floated back in January, was $18 million for roads, bridges and drainage only. Robideaux argued then that such a large redirection would still leave the library with more than enough money to continue operations, a position the administration maintained in council discussion. They mayor’s argument is based on projections that the library’s property tax revenue will grow by more than 100% over the next 11 years, despite that it grew by only about 1% the last two years. Voters will weigh in on the October ballot.

The council voted 6-2 in favor of this amended resolution. Voting no were William Theriot and Jared Bellard, two of the original resolution’s co-authors.

“Robideaux’s proposal was done without library input, so how could he know what we need?” Andrew Duhon, the library’s vice chair, asked the council. He argued that the original proposal didn’t account for potential lower projections for property tax revenue growth, noting that property tax revenue flatlined in the 1980s.

Opponents of the amended proposal say including parks and rec could kill it at the ballot box. Theriot and Bellard made the case that parishwide voters are more worried about flooding than parks and recreation. “Why would we want to invest money in other things if people can’t protect their homes?” Theriot asked.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux is stumping for a library east of I-49.  He supported lowering the amount of money transferred to pay for it. No library exists east of the Evangeline Thruway, he said, lamenting that kids from those neighborhoods, low income areas with poor rates of literacy, need to bike across the highway to get to a library. “We want a library like everybody else,” he said.  

Duhon believes the library could pay for a new library on the Northside, even if some of its fund balance is shifted, and that Boudreaux makes a compelling case for it. But it’s not clear the library can afford to staff and operate a new facility. The library is projected to collect about $2 million less in tax revenue than it costs to operate the system’s existing facilities next year. To maintain current operations it’s going to have to dip into its fund balance. If property tax revenue flatlines or declines, it won’t be long before it will be forced to cut its existing budget by 20% or more. In other words, there’s money to build a library but there may not be money to staff it. The library board has opted not to recommend “rolling forward” — collecting at its highest possible rate — one of its remaining two property taxes, a decision that could reduce projected income by as much as $800,000 annually.

We have to pass the transfer to know how the money’s going to be spent. The administration has not detailed which projects the redirected  dollars would go to. Also unknown is the mix of drainage, roads and bridge improvements. Same goes for the parks and rec allocation.

$10 million may sound like a lot of money, but it’s dwarfed by project needs. Public Works reports a backlog of $97 million in road projects alone on top of tens of millions of dollars in drainage maintenance work. A comprehensive overhaul of the drainage system, which some believe is the only real solution, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

One big takeaway: The council doesn’t seem to agree on the same set of facts. At no point during last night’s discussion did it seem like anyone had the same understanding of the library’s financial situation, or the potential long-term impact of transferring some of its surplus for other needs.

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LOCAL VOICES: Let’s prove our faith in Downtown by investing in it

My dad is a preacher. A good one. His sermons, whether delivered from the pulpit, at home or as a prelude to my being grounded, taught me a lot about life. And because we went to church whenever the lights were on — and because I’ve been grounded often and for a variety of reasons that seemed like good ideas […]

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Intervening in the charter suit, secretary of state looks for answers

The gist: As it stands, the suit filed in district court last week challenges only the legality of an ordinance passed to correct errors in the new city council district map. In intervening, the secretary of state is looking for more direction than that.

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Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map, wording that did not appear on the ballot — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. Elections to seat those new councils are this fall. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. The attorney general and others disagree, saying an election is the only way to make changes. A suit was filed in the 15th Judicial District last week to block the ordinance.

“It wouldn’t answer the questions that we needed to move forward,” Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, tells me of the suit. Because the question before the court is limited to the legality of fixing the discrepancies by ordinance, a ruling may not say much about what to do next. Ardoin is looking to the court for “clarity” on how to solve the problem. “We need a step further to figure out exactly how to proceed,” Brey adds.

Ardoin doesn’t believe there “needs to be a whole scrapping” of the charter amendment vote. He says only holding another vote to amend the charter can correct the errors, a hardening of his previous deference to local authorities. That position is somewhat different from that of Attorney General Jeff Landry and the party who brought the suit against LCG in the first place, a contractor and council split opponent named Keith Kishbaugh. Both have said the result of the December vote must be thrown out and a new election called to create separate city and parish councils.

Time is starting to get critical,” Brey says. “We’re opening up qualifying in August. [Ardoin’s] position always has been that amending the charter is the best way to fix it.”

The attorney general’s office will represent the secretary of state in the matter, despite the apparent, and somewhat nuanced, difference in their positions. The AG issued a formal opinion that serves as the legal basis for the suit. The attorney general’s office says it will “refrain” from comment.

Ardoin punted the issue to Lafayette officials in February, saying the matter needs to be settled a month before qualifying. Brey insists, however, the more affirmative position represented by Ardoin’s intervention into the suit does not represent a shift in the secretary’s thinking.

Kishbaugh’s attorney says the errors make the whole election illegal. Lane Roy, who represents the parish council candidate and a cohort of other opponents, including conservative radio personality Carol Ross, argues the charter amendment proposition is one issue; therefore, the election must be thrown out. That same group also retained Roy to file an inquiry with LCG questioning the legality of replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority with the City Council, an effect of the charter amendments.

“There’s only one proposal that went up for the vote,” Roy told me last week. “[The public] has to be able to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the entire package.”

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Proposal to rededicate the library’s fund balance back on the council’s agenda tonight

The gist: The debate over if and how to rededicate the library’s $26 million fund balance will heat back up at tonight’s council meeting.

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Get caught up, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposed rededicating $18 million to roads, bridges and drainage back in January, justifying the move, in part, by suggesting the library had been collecting a secret tax — the so-called ghost millage. Spooked and confused by the ghost millage revelations, council members deferred the proposal until they could have a public discussion about these allegations. The resolution is back on the agenda to call for a public vote on May 4.  

It’s too late to call a May 4 election. At a minimum, that part of the resolution will need to change. According to council chair Jared Bellard, a co-author of the resolution, LCG’s legal counsel is drafting language to make that modification, and he still hopes to pass a resolution Tuesday calling for an election.

We haven’t had any public discussion on this issue. Technically, the council did have a public discussion of the library’s financial situation in March, but it fell short of the robust conversation promised back in January. The item fell on a packed agenda, appearing alongside the controversy around mayoral aide Marcus Bruno and debate about seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the charter errors. Besides a few minutes of remarks from the library’s chair, Nora Stelly, and a member of the public, Lydia Romero, the issue got little air time. No member of the council added anything or asked any questions.

Meanwhile, the library’s board is meeting April 15. Amid all this uncertainty, the library board is trying to navigate its normal budgeting process. At this meeting, the board will be deciding on the library’s capital requirements moving forward. Part of that discussion will be figuring out just how much rededication of the fund balance library officials would support for other needs in the parish.

No one’s talking to each other. “I haven’t heard from the library at all,” Bellard tells me, adding he was unaware that the library was meeting to have this discussion next week. At the same time, Andrew Duhon, vice chair of the library’s board, says that none of the Robideaux resolution’s co-authors (Bellard, William Theriot, and Kevin Naquin) have approached the library board to better understand the institution’s finances. Duhon confirms that Robideaux sat down with the library board about his proposed resolution but not until after announcing his plan publicly.

Councilman Bruce Conque is working on a compromise proposal. When Robideaux’s proposal first came up, Conque suggested a $10 million rededication as a compromise, an idea that got informal support from library board members. That alternative option is still being worked on.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux wants to see a new library built on the Northside. He’s giving a press conference at 3 p.m. today in the large conference room at City Hall where he’ll be speaking about the need to build a new library in his district to make library services more accessible to his constituents, which include some of Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods. But if $18 million is taken from the library’s fund balance, it’s unlikely it would be able to build another library any time soon.

What to watch for: the fate of the library’s remaining millages. Yet another vote on the library’s finances looms on the horizon. Library officials have to renew another of their now two remaining millages by 2022. If the renewal fails, library revenue will drop by more than half — including the failed renewal in 2018 — from $13.9 million to around $6.5 million. If that were to happen, expect to see our libraries open fewer hours while offering less service.

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