One year from 2020, and Lafayette’s vision is blurred

Illustration by Peter DeHart

The billboard is yellowed now. Stay Happy. Stay Lafayette. Five years worth of travelers have zoomed by it going eastbound on I-10, entering or exiting a town in stasis. It’s ironic, of course, that the accolade was earned in 2014, the year the party crashed. The heady price of oil collapsed, likely never to recover to historic highs, and declawed the wildcatter spirit.

Backroom conversation among city leaders has since sulked. “I’m not sure anyone cares,” one local titan told me, referring to a landscape of community apathy. I sunk into the caverns of my chair.

It’s cliche and fitting that our vision blurs ahead of the year 2020 and that we’ll close out the decade with an election year.

There’s obviously an opportunity here. An influx of headstrong politicos could jar and shock Lafayette — the city, the parish, the state of mind — into a renewed vigor and direction. But for the time being, what incoming officials will take over is a town aimless and scattershot, its politics frayed and fevered, its institutions uneasy and its fortunes in decline.

In short, Lafayette faces existential challenges that, mishandled, could derail it for a generation.

For the first 18 years of the millennium, Lafayette’s outward pitch was pretty obvious: Lafayette was a hub of innovation, of festivity, of a unique culture the envy of Small Town, USA. We were happy, we knew it, we tapped our feet.

Near the tail end of that prosperous run, we hit autopilot and cruised around the bubble. Fiber was in the ground, and oil traded at $100 a barrel. That would have been a fine time to plan for the future; instead, we stayed fat and happy. In fact, we put up those billboards declaring it to the world. They’ve not aged well.

In the last 10 years, the oil and gas sector — the industry that made modern Lafayette — shed 11,000 jobs. The region lost almost $6 billion in GDP between 2012 and 2017.

What the 2016 floods knocked loose, our unvarnished optimism, 2018’s political tumult threw up in the air. It would be an overstatement to call this a crisis, but it’s not hyperbole to say Lafayette’s condition headed into an age of disruption is precarious, fragile even.

There’s much in flux at the beginning of 2019. How it all lands could determine how sound our footing is in the future. What follows are the key parts in motion.

What ever happened to Silicon Bayou?

Last spring, Lafayette enjoyed its best week in tech news, likely ever. The billionaire who owns the Houston Rockets bought Waitr for $300 million, seeding the food delivery app company with gobble-sized growth potential. Seven days later, international tech giant CGI inked a new incentive deal with the state, agreeing to double its local workforce to 800.

Like clockwork, the news scurried up a familiar braggadocio — Silicon Bayou had arrived.

Lafayette has been the next national tech hub for more than 30 years, in the same way that America is the next great soccer power. The prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. In 2016, the state workforce commission projected 2,350 tech jobs in the greater Acadiana region by 2019,  a figured that predates the big job announcements at CGI and the arrival of Waitr’s core engineering team in the market. We now appear to be on pace to exceed that estimate. Still, the total amounts to about 1 percent of the job market. But to put these gains in perspective, the Lafayette MSA has lost 20,000 jobs in the last three years.

It’s becoming more and more clear that Lafayette can no longer hang its fortunes on an oil and gas revival, even if the sector remains relevant in the market. But it’s not so clear that tech can pick up enough slack to make a difference. Even factoring in anticipated landfalls at Waitr and CGI, the sector is still a blip in Lafayette’s economy, not generating near enough gravity to keep the system from tumbling further into the void left by the oil crash.

The story of Lafayette’s tech ambition is one of promise unrealized. LITE went quietly in the night, obsolete before it could find a path to sustainability. Meanwhile, Lafayette is swiftly losing the competitive advantage provided by LUS Fiber. We made a bold $110 million bet back in 2006, at the time launching one of only a handful of municipal fiber systems. Today, there are 106 other communities with public fiber and countless more served by private systems. Running a municipal fiber network alone isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Headlines around Big Tech over the last two years have rubbed off some of the luster in the nation’s courtship of tomorrow’s jobs, but the passion play that was Amazon’s second headquarters sweepstakes, and the bonkers incentive packages cities across America compiled to attract it, demonstrates the desperate competition Lafayette faces nationwide. On the surface, Lafayette boasts the fiber infrastructure and dynamic culture to gain an edge in the fight. But quality of life issues — poor schools, aging infrastructure, lack of opportunity and a disinvested urban core — are more likely to repel top employers and top talent.

Early census numbers show Lafayette Parish shrinking by 2020. So long as local talent seeks opportunity elsewhere, Lafayette will continue to fall short of its potential.

For the time being, feats like Fiber and a handful of smart city initiatives still buy us entry into the world of tech-forward cities; Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has been a keynote speaker at SXSW and continues to make appearances at conferences around the country. But that world is getting bigger with each passing year, and our accomplishments smaller and smaller by comparison.

It’s against that backdrop that Robideaux’s interest in blockchain and cryptocurrency, announced this year in his annual report, makes some sense even if the plan remains inscrutable. It’s a moonshot idea aimed to leapfrog Lafayette ahead of a crowd it’s begun to lag.

What’s baffling is that Lafayette boasts key components for success in the innovation space; we ought to be much further ahead. The digital infrastructure is here, and we can produce an enviable talent pool — among the key reasons a company like Waitr can remain and expand in Lafayette — yet Lafayette’s digital economy has yet to fully arrive.

It’s clear that to make headway in the cloud, there’s work to be done on the ground. Without fixing core dysfunctions, Lafayette will keep coming up short.

Lafayette fought to own the future of LUS. What’s that gonna look like?

In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that Robideaux’s flirtation with privatizing LUS went sour, but few could have predicted the scale and intensity of the backlash. People in this town love their electric utility. Ask Entergy; that’s not easy to cultivate.

Revelations, first reported by The Current, that for more than 18 months Robideaux pursued selling management rights of the city’s publicly owned power company to a Baton Rouge-based private equity firm forced an unprecedented public reckoning. Never before had a frank discussion of LUS’s future sucked up so much public airtime.

The aftermath of the episode has left open two important and related questions: Who will run LUS and what will LUS look like in the near future?

Longtime Director Terry Huval’s departure alone will have an immediate impact on LUS’s direction. Huval ran LUS for nearly three decades, establishing a business-like culture that prioritized low rates and high reliability and took a cautious approach to innovation. Whether that remains the system’s posture will depend in large part on who succeeds Huval.

For the time being, Interim Director Jeff Stewart has made some changes in disposition. LUS, a public monopoly, was run like a private enterprise. Advocates have clamored in recent years for more public input into major decisions, and now they’ll get it. Stewart announced LUS will include the public in developing its long-term strategy.

What impact public input will have could vary wildly, but the resulting mandate, so to speak, could remake the electric system. Introducing his intent to the LPUA late last year, Stewart laid out the disrupted landscape that will frame LUS’s next moves in power generation. Accommodating the projected swell of electric vehicles — by 2030, about 19 million EVs are projected to be on U.S. roadways, up from 1 million in 2018 — and building local renewable power generation are on the table, according to Stewart’s remarks in November. LUS’s power operations face flatlining electric revenues as consumers become more efficient in their energy use, meaning the system may have to innovate with less margin for error.

With so much attention on the electric division, it’s easy to overlook the system’s other two utilities. Wastewater and water policy will have a tremendous effect on growth patterns in and out of the city — and by extension, the area’s long-term resilience to flooding — and some latent issues have already come to a head.

A lack of investment in the city’s ancient sewer system choked development in Lafayette’s urban core, reducing and in some cases chasing off large-scale residential projects intended to corral the city’s suburban sprawl and catch up with 21st century housing demands. In something of an about face, LUS announced a five-year, $7 million plan to add new capacity, addressing bottlenecks in a footprint that stretches from UL to Upper Lafayette. Whether that signals a strategic commitment to the urban core for LUS long term is yet to be seen.

“It is up to the administration and council to adjust these policies if they feel there is a need to do so,” Huval told me in an April interview about the sewer capacity problem.

Huval’s remarks apply to the whole of LUS, an agency that forms the city’s economic backbone. Where utilities go, so too goes development. How LUS generates power, pumps waste and sells water will determine who builds what and where, and the framework for those decisions is set by the administration, to Huval’s point. That puts the fate of urban development squarely on the desk of whoever occupies the office of the mayor-president.

And for the first time in recent memory, an incumbent M-P is likely to face a legitimate challenger. Robideaux kicked over a hornet’s nest of bad faith with his LUS move, and in doing so wrote a platform for whoever runs against him.

Is there life after divorce?

The marital metaphors on the council split-up were useful for visualization, but they don’t really capture the complexity of the issue moving forward. No divorcing couple, however acrimonious, has ever had to deal with cost allocation (more on that in a minute), a kind of divvying up of responsibilities that’s messier than shared custody. That is, unless neither parent wants the kids.

Passing the charter amendments was the easy part. Figuring out how the resulting government works could be painful.

Proponents have remained cheery about the prospects of resolving the anticipated controversies in time to seat the two councils in 2020. Two transition teams have been announced, one internal to the the back-of-house logistics of the council(s) and the other of the blue ribbon variety, calling a cross-section of elected and private leadership to work through the issues and present a roadmap.

As I’ve written before, the conversations could be tense. Cost allocation — the arcane formulas that determine who pays for what in consolidated government — will be on the docket for the joint transition team, and that’s where the miseries of the parish budget will meet their maker. It’s by this system and its 24 calculations that city tax dollars come to subsidize parish services and parish tax dollars come to pay for services it arguably doesn’t need.

Former Mayor-President Joey Durel told me he once figured he could save the parish budget millions by splitting it out of consolidated governance. His theory, in part, will now be put to the test.

Some budgetary items will fall by a logical wayside. City council members will mind city police. Parish council members will deal with state mandates like the district attorney and courts. But shared services like public works and LCG attorneys, for which the burden is shared according to city and parish revenue, aren’t so easily cleaved. Why, exactly, does a broke parish government need to spend $750,000 on information services? Pen and paper could calculate zero just fine.

About $18 million in budgeted operations are allocated essentially by how much the parish can pay. That was an innovation of CPA-in-chief Joel Robideaux’s administration. Consider that the parish general fund nearly zeroes out every year and the picture of future tension comes into view.

“Joel gave the council a logical way to legally take money from the city,” Durel explained. Durel preferred to allocate according to population. “But, it was the council that agreed, and adopted.”  

Things are the way they are because local government doesn’t make any sense. As constituted, there’s little reason for council members to tackle parish problems. It’s easier to make decisions when the money’s flush. No wonder City-Parish Council members say they spend 90 percent of their time on city issues.

Traditionally, the “parish” in city-parish government refers almost exclusively to the unincorporated areas. The restructuring offers a chance to reorient the relationship between parish government and the other cities and towns, or — perhaps more accurately — to finally establish a relationship.

“There is no relationship with parish government,” Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, who won re-election unopposed in 2018, told me in December. “And I don’t expect there to be any change. I expect conditions would continue to deteriorate.” Too much attention will be paid to the 2019 election, he said, and the details of splitting the consolidated baby.

Councilman William Theriot speaks to a skeptical crowd at charter amendment town hall meeting in 2018.

“The council sets the agenda,” Ritter said. “They could have chosen to make parish issues a priority. Meanwhile, you have a mayor-president that made Drag Queen Story Time — which monopolized hours of the council’s time — a priority.”

There was a fellow at one of the charter amendment townhalls who bellowed that, before consolidation, every parish district had a backhoe to clean ditches. They’re gone now, he said, wondering how splitting up the council could fix it. No one had a good answer. He looked flummoxed, but unsurprised.

Whether it was consolidation that disappeared the backhoes isn’t really the point. Government is ditch digging. People across the parish stare anxiously at clogged drainage canals while LCG’s drainage initiative lumbers along.

Who will fill the leadership void?

A bit of Lafayette apocrypha holds that a generation of leaders was lost to the oil crisis of the 1980s, when a void that dwarfed the size of Lafayette’s current downturn swallowed the home of a thousand millionaires and sent families packing for better opportunities.

Like any legend, it’s hard to say it’s factually true. But these days it certainly feels true. Many I’ve spoken with in the last year have pointed to a growing leadership vacuum community-wide. In pinpointing the culprit, the fingers fly. It’s in the council‘s lack of creativity, some say, to solve a problem with anything other than a new tax. Indeed, the tax proposals offered to address the parish budget crunch were left largely undefended. Even if they were ill-conceived, it’s odd they were left out to dry.

Others say it’s in Robideaux’s passive aggression and inattention to detail. His major projects in 2018 — wheeling and dealing LUS, Crypteaux, the old federal courthouse — were catapulted ahead with little follow-through, to oversimplify things. There’s a universe where Robideaux successfully strikes a deal with Jim Bernhard for LUS, but that universe would also include a detailed plan for the windfall of cash. He floated the Crypteaux balloon seemingly out of nowhere and left it to linger; it’s possible the cashing-in opportunity has already sailed. And he very nearly lost his shot at a legacy on the federal courthouse, frustrating council members with poor communication and then not even showing up to defend the details of his deal.

Others find it in the business community’s retreat from policy advocacy, as represented by One Acadiana’s notable absence from the major political dustups of 2018. To some extent you can’t blame them. One Acadiana put a lot of weight behind the school tax in 2017, only to get clobbered by a Facebook page. The erstwhile chamber “endorsed” the Fix the Charter plan but did virtually no campaigning, its most visible involvement coming from 1A staffers who volunteered for the effort.

Leadership is no doubt the issue here. The forces tugging Lafayette’s limbs in every which way could be whipped, shepherded or at least overpowered by a stronger leader or group of them. Faced with the marked reality that Lafayette’s 20th century economy is running out of fuel, the task is urgent. If we do nothing, we’ll be left behind. Lafayette, one year off from 2020, is toothless and distempered, wandering a wilderness that grew around us while we howled at the moon.

We need to face facts: Lafayette failed to capitalize on a period of historic prosperity before the bottom dropped out in 2014. It’s easier to put a man on the moon when things are running smoothly on the ground. Mayor-President Robideaux’s ambitions in tech and innovation have run headlong into that fact of life.

“So you can have this vision of all these really great things,” he told a smart city conference in October. “But when you sit down with your council members and say, ‘We need to spend money on a smart city initiative,’ and let’s just say it’s $1 million. They’re going to come back and say, ‘How about you spend it digging out that ditch that’s in this neighborhood that’s flooded three times?’ That’s the reality that we face.”

There we go again with digging ditches.

It’s tempting to look at Robideaux’s complaint as an either/or problem: Either we take risks and innovate or we tighten our belts and shore up the foundation. But it’s actually a both/and problem: We have to both shoot the moon and clean the coulees.

Whoever we elect in 2019 will wrangle with a constant and familiar challenge: striving for more while working with less. Succeeding in that environment is tough, perhaps impossible without visionary leadership.

Maybe that’s why Lafayette doesn’t feel so happy anymore.