Joel Robideaux spearheads plan for $100 million Heymann Center replacement

The Heymann Center, with a puddle in the foreground.
Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: The long-discussed plan to build a new performing arts center in Lafayette may be taking shape. Attached to the proposal is a $100 million price tag funded by state capital outlay and a 1-cent sales tax in the city of Lafayette. 

A win-win. To bring in major artists and productions, the argument goes, Lafayette needs a new performing arts center to replace the outdated Heymann Center constructed in 1960. Its Oil Center neighbor, Ochsner Lafayette General, one of the region’s biggest employers, has long angled to acquire the city-owned facility to expand its sprawling but landlocked campus. How we get to the finish line — including how it’s ultimately financed and maintained, and, perhaps most importantly, where we put it — is still TBD.

An outline has emerged. A draft memo obtained by The Current lays out plans for what’s being billed as a partnership between Lafayette Consolidated Government and UL Lafayette for construction of a 2,200- to 3,000-seat auditorium and convention center with a multi-level parking structure at a yet-to-be-determined location. 

“The new center would ideally house a secondary, smaller venue for performances that could happen concurrently with the large auditorium, as well as rehearsal and recording studio spaces and an elegant lobby,” reads the outline, authored by AcA Executive Director Sam Oliver. 

Robideaux takes the lead. Former M-P Joel Robideaux, who works as a lobbyist for Ochsner Lafayette General’s parent company (it’s one of his three main clients), organized and called at least two meetings of the community stakeholders group to discuss the project on Aug. 10 and Oct. 4, according to the memo. Topics of discussion included “limitations of the existing Heymann Center, the cost to renovate the existing structure, needs that could be answered by a new performing arts center, and financing options.” According to the memo, members of the stakeholder group include Oliver, Mayor-President Josh Guillory, UL President Joe Savoie, Senate President Page Cortez, Rep. Stuart Bishop, Lafayette Parish School Board President Mary Morrison, arts advocate Jackie Lyle (executive director of Performing Arts Serving Acadiana), conservative radio host Carol Ross and advertising executive Paul Eason. An email obtained by The Current also indicates that LCG CAO Cydra Wingerter and Park, Arts, Recreation and Culture Director Hollis Conway, along with LPSS Superintendent Irma Trosclair, Brian McGrath of the Heymann Center and AcA board president Lyle Girouard, were also invited to the first meeting.

Robideaux, who circulated a one-page condensed version of the memo draft to committee members on Oct. 29 and asked for input, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. “This one-pager is to provide a consistent narrative regarding the project as it now stands,” Robideaux wrote. “Certainly, that narrative may change as discussions continue, so keep in mind that location, costs, size, etc. will all be part of a very transparent process.”

Where to build it? While the consensus among the stakeholders group is to build a new facility, sources close to the process say its location continues to be a big sticking point. The performing arts center is designed to serve as a catalyst for restaurants, hotels and other entertainment-type venues within walking distance, the memo notes, which appears to make Downtown a prime location. Downtown advocates have long argued that a performing arts center could be exactly what the city center needs to finally land a hotel development. 

“It would be viewed extremely favorably for a substantial private development to be triggered by this project and further multiply the public impact of this initial public investment,” the paper notes. Oliver stipulates that total return on investment will differ based on the final site selection: “Return on investment will be a key criteria for determining the final site selection.”

However, UL’s master plan includes a performing arts center at University Commons, near the Cajundome, and with UL partnering on operations of the LCG-owned facility, the university could have an outsized influence on where it’s built. 

The memo suggests all of the community stakeholders have input on the location, one that should be informed by a third-party expert feasibility analysis.

“We do not need to ‘reinvent the wheel,’” Oliver concludes about how the center will be operated and managed. He says the city will look to similar operations in comparable markets to build future management plans, including the Holland Center in Omaha, Nebraska; the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts in Amarillo, Texas; and the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Who will pay for it? The 100,000-square-foot performing arts center would cost approximately $100 million to construct, funded by a $75 million capital outlay from the state and a local match of $25 million from a city of Lafayette 1-cent sales tax with a sunset provision (much like the one that funded the new airport terminal). The sales tax proposal could appear on the November 2022 ballot. Operations and maintenance, estimated at $1.6 million annually in a 2011 feasibility study (see P. 129), would need to be subsidized by about $700,000 each year, potentially funded via a capital campaign to create a restricted endowment of at least $25 million. The capital campaign would aim to secure naming rights to the center and to various parts of the facility in perpetuity, according to the memo. The estimated opening date is 2027.

Guillory supports sales tax. Public records obtained from the Lafayette Economic Development Authority reveal that Guillory asked the organization in April how much a city-wide sales tax would generate, presumably for this project. Sources close to the proposed project say Guillory, who last year shuttered the Heymann Center amid efforts to right-size LCG’s budget and reduce government costs on cultural programming, does support sending the tax proposition to voters. When asked then if he believes it’s the role of government to support local arts and cultural activities, the mayor-president said, “I think it’s a want, not a need.”

Guillory’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“Joel Robideaux is the person to talk to about that,” Ross texted early this afternoon in response to an interview request.

“The transparency’s there,” Guillory said on Ross’s radio show, shortly after The Current asked for comment from both of them. “And make sure if you’re gonna go that route [the tax], it’s public buy-in, not like those taxing districts,” he added, referencing the economic development districts passed by the consolidated council under the Robideaux administration. 

Would a tax pass? The project needs a local match, and passing a sales tax is politically risky. A similar mechanism was used to fund the new airport terminal, which was pushed as an economic development investment. Whether voters would agree to a 1-cent sales tax for a new cultural asset is an open question.