When cities lose their biggest industries, they face a choice: accept their diminished economic reality or attempt something bold to change it.
When local textile mills closed in the 1970s in Greenville, S.C., local leaders — rather than accept this new status quo — chose to do something bold: catalyze development in their downtown through a multi-year plan to leverage a hidden waterfall by removing a bridge and building a park with an iconic pedestrian bridge.
As a result of a $13 million investment into Falls Park and the Liberty Bridge, hundreds of millions in private investment sprouted apartments, condos, hotels, offices, retail space and restaurants in the surrounding downtown. This development and the resulting improved quality of life has helped attract thousands of jobs, including a nearby BMW factory that now employs 11,000 people. Where once Greenville faced economic ruin, now their community is booming.
Back in Lafayette, while we haven’t lost our biggest industry entirely, the oil and gas sector of the economy generates less than half the revenue it did just a few years ago. And due to a fundamental restructuring of the market from drilling offshore to fracking onshore, Lafayette’s oil and gas industry is unlikely to recover the ground it’s lost any time soon.
So now we too have a choice. Do we accept our newly diminished economic reality, or are we ready to do something bold to try and change it? Because if we’re ready to think big, then I’ve found a waterfall of opportunity hidden in Downtown Lafayette. You’ll find it underneath the parish jail, the parish courthouse, the Buchanan garage and the old federal courthouse.
Together these properties make up a contiguous multi-acre redevelopment corridor running right through Downtown. There’s enough room to build any combination of possibilities, like a replacement for the Heymann Center, or a new museum celebrating local culture and history, or a cooking school, or a bigger hotel, or lots of new housing, or more outdoor public space, or offices to house the growth of companies like CGI and Waitr, or new room for retailers and restaurants.
These sites represent the opportunity to build something iconic that embodies our community’s aspiration to create a brighter future. Something with enough scale that it can catalyze hundreds of millions of dollars of follow-on private investment. And something with the potential to power the growth of the next generation of the economy.
And I’m ready to make the case that all we’ve got to do to tap into this opportunity is tear down a jail and a courthouse to make room for the future of Lafayette.
What can we learn from Greenville?
If Lafayette wants to get serious about doing something of significance, there are a few key lessons we need to learn from Greenville’s example.
First, we need a vision that gets people excited. The vision for Falls Park started on a postcard with a rendering of what the park could look like. Supporters of the plan used that to show people what’s possible.
Second, we need the ability to tolerate financial risk. When Greenville invested $13 million into this project, there was no guarantee that it would succeed in catalyzing additional development. For a city of less than 60,000 people this was a significant undertaking.
Third, we need patience. It took almost 20 years for Greenville to go from announcing its plans to construct a park to being able to actually get that park built and open.
Fourth, we need an abundance of persistence. Many in Greenville wondered why they should tear down a perfectly good bridge or put millions of public dollars at risk. For some it wasn’t until they were actually able to walk into Falls Park that they understood its value.
But the most important lesson we can learn from Greenville is that public investments can catalyze private development, revitalize downtowns and reinvigorate economies. We just have to be willing to invest taxpayer money in catalytic projects.
Making an impossible dream possible
There are any number of reasons why this vision for redeveloping these properties won’t or can’t happen, the biggest of which is simple: money, or rather a lack thereof.
The parish government is effectively broke, and most of these properties lie on parish land. At the same time, the rise of anti-tax sentiment in local politics makes it harder than ever to raise capital through new taxes.
Even if we can raise the money, there are the challenges associated with figuring out where to build a new parish jail and courthouse. I’d love to move the jail out of Downtown, but it’s nice to have the courthouse near the jail, and building a new courthouse outside of the urban core could cause an exodus of lawyers moving out of their Downtown offices.
But despite the challenges, we’re also closer to making something like this happen than you might realize.
The old federal courthouse already has a plan underway to be redeveloped. And the Buchanan garage — shuttered suddenly last year — is at the very early stages of being returned to commerce. Unfortunately, they’re being developed as separate projects rather than as part of a larger whole.
The district judges who work in the parish courthouse have long wanted a new facility to replace their current one. Even though millions have been spent renovating it in recent years, millions more are needed, as it’s literally falling apart. So if we’re going to have to spend millions either way, why not focus on building a new courthouse and tapping into the catalytic redevelopment potential of this property instead?
Moving the jail has been a talking point since the last sheriff’s campaign. And the idea has never fully disappeared. It’s a costly proposition, but one that could gain steam under the right circumstances.
What this all means is that this opportunity to open up a whole new contiguous multi-acre redevelopment corridor in the heart of Downtown has been staring us in the face for years. And that while some redevelopment has started, it’s happening piecemeal without a larger unifying vision connecting the dots on what’s possible.
Let’s make history
My hope for this community that I love and call home is that we don’t forget Lafayette’s history as a place where the impossible is possible.
Lafayette built a university to attract and educate the best and brightest. Built roads to attract commerce. Built a public utility to power industry. Transformed an orchard into a hub for the oil and gas industry. Built a cutting edge fiber network. Built a terrific library system. Just a few years ago approved a tax to build a new airport. And now we’re transforming an old horse farm on Johnston Street into a world-class public park.
Lafayette’s history is full of leaders who had a vision and fought to make it happen in ways that have shaped the city and the parish, laying a foundation for the kind of place that should be generating even bolder ideas today.
I know we’re capable of transforming a hidden waterfall through public investments that create a better tomorrow for our community. And I know catalyzing Downtown development offers some of the greatest potential to regain the ground our economy has lost.
The question now is: Are we as a community ready to unearth this waterfall under the parish jail and courthouse and build something great for the community we love? Are we willing to transform this strip of land that bisects the original lots on which Lafayette was founded by Jean Mouton into a manifestation of what we aspire to be?
I know I am. Because I’m a dreamer who refuses to accept that Lafayette’s brightest days are behind us, who’s willing to fight for a better future for our community, and who knows that fortune favors the bold.