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Column: Lafayette should hold Guillory’s horses on new Heymann Center 

The current Heymann Perforrming Arts Center near Ochsner Lafayette General
Without input from the City Council, which has the final say, 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

I want Lafayette to build a new performing arts center as much as anyone. What I don’t want is for Lafayette to lurch forward with another half-baked public infrastructure project. Especially not when this will become one of the city’s most valuable and expensive assets. But that’s exactly what’s happening. 

Mayor-President Josh Guillory is short-circuiting the site selection process in promoting a “tentative” deal with UL to locate the city-owned facility at the UL Research Park. It’s a big decision, announced in late October, backed only by a handful of small meetings and a thin feasibility study

The lack of public input has been called out by a coalition of local stakeholders, among them arts advocates and folks representing Downtown and Northside groups. In a letter to the City Council, they requested a more robust process, including a request for proposals, that would open up the decision to public input and help the council make a more informed choice. As they rightly point out, this decision will ultimately be made by the City Council — not the mayor-president. 

At least one council member said Tuesday night that he supports what those stakeholders are asking for “120 percent.” Councilman Glenn Lazard noted that the administration’s press release gave the impression “this is some kind of done deal” between LCG and UL. The mayor-president teaches at UL part-time in possible violation of LCG’s Home Rule Charter

“I just want to reassure the public that this is not a done deal and [that] there is a process that still has to be … and will be followed,” Lazard said. 

Opening up an RFP makes a whole lot of sense to me. The library system used an RFP process for an $8 million library on the Northside. Why not do the same for a $100+ million performing arts center? 

An RFP creates a lot more transparency. We can get more details about what a deal with UL would look like. At the same time, we can find out if there are enticing opportunities elsewhere in Lafayette. 

The mayor-president claims this deal with UL would save millions on land acquisition. UL would lease the land for $1 per year. Getting land essentially for free is a good deal. But without an RFP we can’t know if UL’s offer is the best option. Others could match or beat it. 

Why ignore the opportunity to have a transparent public process and instead let the mayor-president decide the best place for this generational investment?

Location isn’t the only consideration here. Should the City Council sign off on a deal with UL right now, it would leave some big unknowns on the table. 

We don’t know what we’re building. The Guillory administration submitted a two-year, $45 million state capital outlay request for a 5,000-seat theater, more than double the Heymann Center’s current capacity. Consultants hired by LEDA penciled out a 2,250-seat theater, roughly equivalent to the current Heymann Center. That’s a large range of outcomes, and it ignores factors like what we can actually afford vs. what facilities we think we’ll need 20 years from now.

We don’t know how much a new facility will cost. The administration projected a total budget of $127 million, including land, in its state capital outlay request last fall. Then this spring, the consultants estimated between $100 million to $125 million for the building, but did not account for land acquisition or other construction like parking and  landscaping. With construction costs already sky-high, inflation rippling through the economy, and the propensity for public projects to go over budget, this new facility could easily end up costing $150 million to $200 million.

We also don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. The consultants suggested new taxes, state capital outlay, and philanthropy. And the working group convened by the mayor-president floated the idea of a 1-cent, temporary sales tax. 

Betting on any tax is risky. Lafayette has voted down every new tax proposed over the last few years. 

State money is going to become harder to get as federal coronavirus money dries up. Plus, a recession may loom. LCG secured $24 million in state funds of the $45 million it requested. That’s a far cry from the $70 million to $75 million suggested by consultants. 

We also need to temper our enthusiasm about philanthropy’s potential. Moncus Park, for example, has raised about $25 million of the $60 million it needs to bring the facility’s vision to fruition (grants and capital outlay dollars are also helping). Other big capital campaigns are ongoing, too, like UL’s own $500 million moonshot. 

It’s not clear that we’re anywhere close to having enough money to pay to build this thing, unless UL’s planning on footing a good deal of the bill.

All of that suggests city taxpayers will have to come up with the funds somehow. And not just to build it but also to subsidize its operations. Guillory wants this new center to pay for itself. But consultants say the new center will require $500,000 in annual operating subsidies. And that’s assuming a construction budget of only $100 million. The bigger the facility, the more costly it will be to maintain, which means more subsidies will be required. 

Maybe not all of these questions demand clear answers at this point in the process. But it’s imprudent to rush big decisions without having more information available. Lafayette’s gotten itself into costly trouble with that approach for years. Guillory has put that tendency on steroids, landing LCG in court and putting tens of millions at risk.  

The City Council should rein in his cart-before-the-horse decision making before we screw up another public infrastructure project.