Lafayette formally asks state for millions to fund new performing arts center

The current Heymann Perforrming Arts Center near Ochsner Lafayette General
In October, Mayor-President Josh Guillory announced a tentative deal with UL to replace the 61-year-old Heymann Performing Arts Center, currently located next to Ochsner Lafayette General. Photo by Robin May

The gist: With a hastily completed application, Lafayette Consolidated Government met a Nov. 1 capital outlay request deadline, asking the state to help fund a $127 million replacement for the Heymann Performing Arts Center in the next budget cycle. 

Get caught up, quickly. Landlocked Ochsner Lafayette General wants to buy the 61-year-old Heymann Performing Arts Center, which is sandwiched between properties it owns in the Oil Center. Since this summer, former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who works as a lobbyist for Ochsner (it’s one of his three main clients), has been calling meetings of a community stakeholders group to discuss the project. It’s unclear who asked Robideaux, who has not responded to requests for comment, to assemble the group. 

Members of the stakeholders committee include Acadiana Center for the Arts Executive Director Sam Oliver, Mayor-President Josh Guillory, UL President Joe Savoie, PASA Executive Director Jackie Lyle, conservative radio host Carol Ross, advertising executive Paul Eason, Park, Arts, Recreation and Culture Director Hollis Conway, and reps from LPSS and the Heymann Center. 

Slowly then suddenly. Talk of a new Heymann has floated around for at least a decade. But the working group convened by Robideaux is moving swiftly to take advantage of favorable conditions in the Legislature. A potential city-wide sales tax proposed in the application to the state would tentatively hit the ballot in 2022, yet at the time the request was submitted on Oct. 27 no member of the Lafayette City Council, which would need to agree to send the measure to a public vote, had been in on the discussions. That local match is a must for the state funding to be awarded. And while the financing stack pitched on LCG’s application contemplates a local sales tax, the “no” box is inexplicably checked when asked whether the local funding would be brought to an election. The form also suggests a 5,000-seat facility, nearly double the size of the current facility and what the community group has been discussing, among other questionable assertions.

CAO Cydra Wingerter, who signed off on the request and is part of the community stakeholders group, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Moving forward, tentatively? Robideaux and others have characterized the group as “informal” and its plans incomplete, but they are nonetheless pressing forward to secure financing with the capital outlay request.

A memo drafted by Oliver on Oct. 25, which he wrote to encapsulate the group’s discussions for use in an upcoming feasibility study, envisions an approximately $100 million facility with 2,200 to 3,000 seats that would be funded by state dollars and a temporary sales tax in the city (similar to the parishwide tax that funded the new airport terminal). Operations and maintenance, estimated at $1.6 million annually in a 2011 study conducted for UL, would need to be subsidized by about $700,000 each year, potentially funded via a capital campaign to create a $25 million endowment. 

“It’s still very, very tentative … I’m not sure that $127 million [in LCG’s request to the state] is an accurate number at this point or just sort of a high number so you don’t underestimate the total project,” says Senate President Page Cortez of Lafayette, who on Nov. 1 submitted a letter to the Division of Administration supporting adding the project to the 2022-2023 Capital Outlay Budget. “Capital outlay requests are a little bit cart before the horse, so to speak. A request doesn’t necessarily get it into the bill,” he says. (Follow the process of requests here.)

Cortez, who is close friends with Robideaux, says he and state Rep. Stuart Bishop (Ways and Means chairman) participated in the first meeting of the community stakeholders group by Zoom this summer and agreed to support the project legislatively if just about everyone could come together on it. “I wanted to make sure [it included] every stakeholder from the university to the public school system to the dance schools, Acadiana Center for the Arts, the Symphony, PASA,” Cortez says. “It’s gotta be everybody going in.”

That, to an extent, happened this week. More than a dozen people joined the community group at Monday’s meeting at the Heymann Center, including reps from the City Council (Nanette Cook), Downtown, LEDA, the Symphony, Lafayette Ballet Theater and LCVC. “I think it’s expected to grow even more if it’s going to become serious,” Cortez says. 

Preliminary numbers in the request to the state don’t add up. While the capital outlay request pegs a potential new center at $127 million — much higher than the figure in Oliver’s memo — it only stipulates state and local funding totaling $76 million. Wingerter is asking the state for $45.5 million over two years and suggests a temporary sales tax in the city of Lafayette would generate $30.5 million. That leaves a funding gap of about $50 million. 

“The answer on where the rest [of the dollars] would come from, I don’t know if that would be a donation or they would use some of the proceeds from the sale of a property, so there could be a number of different financing options,” Cortez says. 

What’s next? So much about the potential project remains up in the air, including where to put it. LEDA has agreed to fund a feasibility study, which would in essence be an update to an obsolete 2011 market and financial feasibility study conducted by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International. That firm evaluated the new center part as part of UL’s University Commons development near the Cajundome. (Read the CSL 2011 study beginning on Page 129 of the master plan appendix.) 

LEDA CEO Mandi Mitchell tells The Current CSL International will conduct a comprehensive study that will include a market demand analysis, site analysis, economic and fiscal impact analysis and an assessment of funding scenarios. “We envision the site analysis to include an in-depth evaluation of multiple sites in the community,” Mitchell says. 

“The capital outlay bill is not going to get something put in there without local participation,” Cortez says. “The likelihood that [the project will] happen is predicated on what happens locally, from the public bodies, whether it be the Parish Council or the City Council. And it probably would be both that would have to make some decisions on whether they would want to move forward on a formula like the airport formula.”