In recent years, Lafayette has paid experts to come to town to preach the gospel of incrementalism. Figures like Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns and Quint Studer of Vibrant Community Partners argue it’s better to focus on small wins that can improve people’s lives quickly rather than on big home run projects.
Studer, the inspiration behind Vibrant Acadiana, calls it “small ball,” focusing on base hits that build momentum rather than swinging for the fences. Marohn has called for a “bottom-up revolution” beginning with the smallest things that communities can do to address people’s struggles and working their way up the list.
Clearly, we’re not paying attention to what the experts are telling us.
Walking out of a presentation last week about spending tens of millions transforming three Northside parks, I turned down the main hallway in the Heymann Park recreation center, looked up, and saw a ceiling filled with moldy ceiling tiles.
This isn’t another column about how Lafayette can’t afford superparks. It’s about a larger issue: Lafayette has a bad habit of chasing home-run projects to the detriment of focusing on incremental improvements.
This tendency to dream big is part of what drew me to Lafayette in the first place. I was amazed that a city of this size had accomplished so much. Our history is full of examples of how dreaming big paid off for Lafayette. Like when we built a public electric system or a public university or a public fiber network or some of the greatest free festivals in the world.
But big dreams can distract from accomplishing small, important tasks. The bigger the dream, the less likely it is to become real. And if they are realized they may fall short of their initial vision. And if they aren’t thoughtfully planned they can become boondoggles of unfunded operations and maintenance liabilities. In other words, these big home run projects can actually hurt our community’s momentum rather than help it.
And the big dreams about these parks is a great example of this reality.
Dreaming big or deluding ourselves?
The preliminary plans presented last month for Heymann, Beaver and Lil Woods parks are undoubtedly exciting. The consulting architects displayed an outdoor custom pool with room for hundreds of swimmers, miles of multi-tiered boardwalks connecting the three parks together, an amphitheater, a dance hall, a tennis center to host tournaments, all sorts of play structures for the kids, a disc golf course that crosses the river, and a whole bunch more.
These plans aren’t at a point where there are price tags on anything, but the architects admitted to me that if Lafayette wanted to build everything they’ve designed it’d cost tens of millions of dollars.
To give that some context, LCG has budgeted for the city to take on $25 million in debt to transform Brown Park and Moore Parks into facilities akin to the Youngsville or Broussard sports complexes. And the full construction budget for Lafayette Central Park is $30 million, though it’s only raised enough money to build out the front half of the park to date.
Technically, the city of Lafayette could afford it. Its existing sales taxes have the capacity to support a couple hundred million worth of debt to cover projects of this size. But LCG has already penciled in $160 million in bond sales into its five-year capital outlay budget for other projects.
Plus, building large new public facilities generally increases the funding required to operate and maintain them. So investing tens of millions into combining these three parks into a mega park could create hundreds of thousands if not millions in maintenance costs with no additional revenue planned to pay for it. For context, Lafayette’s per capita parks spending is about 10% of Youngsville’s.
I just can’t get my head around how any of this will ever make any financial sense. One idea the architects suggested to help offset the costs is to develop land on the periphery of the parks into housing. But while I like this idea a lot, it’s a solution that would only generate millions of dollars to fill a funding gap that reaches into the tens of millions.
Given these financial realities, these grandiose visions seem borderline delusional. Especially when presented against the backdrop of those moldy ceiling tiles. Why are we talking about spending millions we don’t have when we can’t replace old ceiling tiles?
When home runs distract from base hits
There is some money already appropriated for pieces of the vision, namely $1.5 million in city capital outlay dollars for a pedestrian bridge over the Vermilion and $3.5 million in state capital outlay dollars earmarked for an amphitheater in Heymann Park.
But money for the amphitheater was first put into LCG’s budget almost four years ago, and we still haven’t broken ground. Meanwhile, before we’ve even made contact on this project, we’re swinging for the fences with visions for a mega park with no serious discussion of how we’re going to pay to build or maintain it.
This same criticism arguably applies to a host of other projects in Lafayette too. Like the $30 million we spent building a giant egg at LITE and buying supercomputers without a viable business plan. Or the 30 years we’ve spent talking about the I-49 Connector while letting the Thruway fall to pieces. Or any of the other big road widening and extension projects we keep prioritizing over fixing our existing roads. Or LUS Fiber’s plans to expand into a half dozen neighboring parishes before completing its buildout here or its incremental expansions into the rest of Lafayette Parish.
In each of these cases, Lafayette’s penchant for dreaming big distracts us from taking more incremental steps that could be cheaper, faster, less risky and potentially more impactful, especially when it comes to building sustainable momentum.
Dream big but don’t be delusional
Lafayette’s future isn’t to stop dreaming big. We actually need to dream bigger to overcome the economic challenges in front of us. But I don’t think we can afford to continue this pattern.
And this isn’t just about the parks. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of publicly funded projects appear to be falling into the same trap. Like new Downtown parking garages when we’ve historically done such a poor job maintaining existing garages that one had to be condemned. Or a new performing arts center that will have twice as many seats but somehow have the same operating budget as the existing facility, according to the administration’s state capital outlay request. Or like the $60 million Bayou Vermilion Flood Control Project that doesn’t appear to prevent anyone’s homes from flooding.
We need to spend less time fantasizing and more time focusing on the small steps we can take to move our community forward more quickly. No one should be making plans to spend millions on new infrastructure in a building filled with moldy ceiling tiles.
Well said Geoff! Chuck Marohn with Strong Towns came to Lafayette and did one of the most in-depth study of the city's finances and infrastructure and painted a very clear picture for the city. Lafayette (just like pretty much everywhere else) cannot afford to maintain or replace the infrastructure it already has, refuses to start thinking about that infrastructure as liabilities, and continues to build more of it at every turn... all the while subsidizing the kind of development that makes things worse AND focusing on ridiculous fluff projects that serve very little of the population. Strong Towns regularly uses the Lafayette data in articles, podcast, and speeches as the clearest example of how to explain what NOT to do yet it was seemingly (conveniently) forgotten the moment Chuck walked out of the room.