What would Maurice Heymann do to build a brighter future for Lafayette?

Maurice Heymann - Founder of the Oil Center Illustration by Peter DeHart

As I was listening to a presentation about the late Maurice Heymann by Jan Swift a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering what he’d do today to build a brighter future for Lafayette’s economy.

If you don’t know why his opinion would matter on this subject, you probably don’t know that he’s the guy who built the Oil Center and is widely credited with catalyzing the establishment and growth of the oil and gas sector in Lafayette.

Given that his efforts helped foster an industry that generates billions of dollars in annual GDP locally, it’d be great if we could ask him what he would do if he were alive today to get us out of the $10 billion hole our economy’s in. Unfortunately, short of having a successful seance this All Hallow’s Eve, that option is not available to us.

What we do have, though, is an incredible example in the Oil Center that we can analyze in order to identify the key ingredients that enabled its success and then try to apply these lessons learned to growing our new economy.  

These were the essential elements that transformed an empty patch of land into ground zero for the development of what has been Lafayette’s largest industry:

Maurice Heymann – Without Heymann, Lafayette likely doesn’t get the Oil Center. Without the Oil Center, Lafayette likely doesn’t become a hub of the oil and gas industry. And without the oil and gas industry, Lafayette as we know it probably never comes into existence. In other words, Lafayette was lucky to have had a man of his means, talent, vision, fearlessness and patience willing to invest himself into building a brighter future for Lafayette.

A. Hays Town – But none of this would have even been a possibility if not for the vision of a recent architecture graduate who believed that what Lafayette needed was a second business district to complement Downtown. A. Hays Town planted this seed of an idea in Maurice Heymann’s head, which is what led to the next key ingredient.

Vision + Risk – With A. Hays Town’s vision in mind, Heymann started buying up the Girard family’s property where the Oil Center would eventually be located. But at that time Heymann didn’t know exactly what he would be building there; he just knew that eventually this property was going to be a place he could do something with.

Persistence – Heymann’s first attempt at building something like the Oil Center was in 1936, but his efforts to recruit oil companies were rebuffed as Lake Charles was where the action was. It wasn’t until 1952 that he was able to garner enough interest to officially announce the establishment of the Oil Center and start building out his vision.

Convergence – What ultimately made the Oil Center possible in Lafayette was a convergence of multiple factors. During WWII, there had been a moratorium on building offices, which created pent up demand. At the same time, new innovations in drilling were enabling more drilling offshore, creating more demand by energy companies to be in closer proximity to the Gulf.

Serendipity – Another enabling factor was sheer dumb luck, as these first oil companies originally wanted to locate in Opelousas — the happening town back then — but they didn’t want to see the construction of a bunch of office buildings that could threaten the character of their town. There was also the good fortune that at the exact moment drilling was becoming possible, offshore demand for oil was increasing with the building of freeways and the rise of the automobile. It’s remarkable when you think about how many things had to line up just right for the Oil Center to happen.

Maurice Heymann proved that you can build industries locally out of whole cloth. The question now becomes: Who wants to be our modern day Maurice Heymann and help Lafayette’s economy grow its way out of the hole it’s in?

Infrastructure – But as they say, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and Lafayette had been preparing itself to seize opportunities like this for years. If Lafayette hadn’t built roads to surrounding towns and its own utility system in LUS, it wouldn’t have been selected as the site for the university, and we wouldn’t have attracted Maurice Heymann to move here to open his first retail store in 1916, build his empire, and reinvest his success into the community he fell in love with. So investment in infrastructure was key to making opportunities like the Oil Center possible in the first place.

Flexibility – Before building out the Oil Center in its current location, Heymann’s plans were to build a high-rise Downtown. But the first oil companies that expressed interest in opening up shop in Lafayette wanted low-rise single-story offices. So Heymann had to be flexible in responding to what the market was telling him.

Ecosystem – Another key was Heymann’s realization that he needed to treat his development as an ecosystem. He knew that all the people in these offices were going to want places to eat and to shop. He wanted them to have access to entertainment and health care so he donated land for what would become the Heymann Center and money to build Lafayette General. He wanted the oil and gas industry to have a place to convene, so he supported the creation of the Petroleum Club. Through these efforts, the Oil Center became a campus for different types of oil and gas companies to interact easily with each other. This fostered clustering of businesses related to this industry, which ultimately helped rise the tide for all parties involved.

Momentum – Heymann started the Oil Center with just a handful of buildings encompassing 30,000 square feet in 1952, but by 1959 he had built out 39 buildings representing 350,000 square feet of office space that housed 250 oil and gas companies. By the time he died in 1967, it had grown to 90 buildings with more than 300 companies employing more than 3,000 people. In other words, once Heymann got started, he didn’t stop.

Profitability – While much can and should be made about the breadth and diversity of Heymann’s philanthropic efforts, what ultimately made the Oil Center such a big success for Lafayette was how profitable it became. In 15 years, he transformed a piece of land that was just being used as a nursery into a real estate portfolio worth $225 million in today’s dollars. That incredible return on investment is what funded his philanthropic efforts while simultaneously creating innumerable economic opportunities for our area.

So with all this in mind, the question turns back to what would Maurice Heymann do if he were alive today to help rebuild Lafayette’s economy?

If I were A. Hays Town, what I’d be advising is simple: let’s build out Downtown, the Oil Center and the Research Village.

All three have had master plans done within the last five years. All three have real estate that could be developed. All three have industries that could be fostered.

For the Oil Center, that would obviously be healthtech, as it’s already home to Lafayette General, with Acadian Companies, LHC Group and Schumacher not far away.

For Downtown, that could be software development, since Waitr’s expanding there along with CGI and Perficient.

For the Research Village, ideally it would be related to the transfer of technology out of UL’s research enterprise and into the marketplace across a wide array of potential industries.

Imagine a future where all three of them are fully developed, with multi-story office buildings and housing, with retail and restaurants and entertainment, and hundreds of businesses producing billions in GDP from industries of the future like healthtech, software development and applied research in areas like energy, VR, analytics and beyond.

All of these visions are possible with the right combination of vision, capital, risk tolerance, patience, persistence, flexibility, infrastructure, holistic thinking, serendipity, momentum and profitability.

Maurice Heymann proved that you can build industries locally out of whole cloth. The question now becomes: Who wants to be our modern day Maurice Heymann and help Lafayette’s economy grow its way out of the hole it’s in?