A series exploring the highs and lows of Lafayette’s economy, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Lafayette’s burning bridge: Young people are leaving 

photo of woman with suitcase walking down dirt road
Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

One way of looking at the latest One Acadiana survey data: Lafayette’s quality of life is both too good and not good enough. That has me worried we may be too satisfied to respond to the trends threatening our future.

Community revitalization expert Quint Studer was back in town this week sharing the results of the second quality of life survey produced by One Acadiana’s Vibrant Acadiana initiative. The results? We’re more satisfied with our quality of life than just about anywhere else in America. 

Around 72% of respondents rated Acadiana’s quality of life as excellent or good, the highest score recorded by the firm conducting the poll. And it also outpaced Studer’s hometown of Pensacola, where One Acadiana sent a delegation earlier this year to learn from what worked there.

Studer warned the high result may actually be a bad thing because it can lead to complacency. 

His theory of change is based on the idea that communities need burning bridges (he calls them “burning platforms”) to get individuals to take action. How can you motivate people to change when they’re happy with the status quo?

I asked him exactly that question after the event. And he rightly pointed out that while our satisfaction may be high, we’ve got some serious bridge fires.

First, recent college graduates aren’t happy. Only 37% of respondents thought Lafayette was excellent or good for this segment of our population. While that’s up from 36% in last year’s survey, the number who rated us as being excellent in this area dropped from 28% last year to 7% this year. 

That measures up with anecdotal evidence of brain drain. Lafayette should be competing for talent. We could be losing that fight. 

Lafayette attracts young people to its higher ed institutions — UL and SLCC. But if they don’t feel like Lafayette’s the kind of place where they can find a job, and start a career, and make the life they want, then our community becomes a pit stop rather than a destination for young people.

The net effect of that trend is apparent. And that’s the second burning bridge Studer pointed out: Lafayette’s population growth was stagnant.

Between 2020 and 2021, metro Pensacola, which is roughly the same population size as metro Lafayette, grew by approximately 5,000 people. Lafayette’s only grew by about 1,000.

But Lafayette should have a huge advantage in this arena. During this period of time, we had more births than deaths, while Pensacola had more deaths than births. By natural rights, Pensacola should be shrinking. But it’s outpacing Lafayette because of in-migration. 

In other words, our quality of life is not translating into significant growth. No one’s moving here. 

Studer pointed out some keys to attracting young people. 

His first observation is that young people today are the first generation to choose where they want to live and then figure out how to make a living. Quality of place is essential. And to younger people the primary attraction is access to a vibrant downtown.

While Lafayette’s Downtown has made tremendous progress in the last few years, as a community we still have not truly embraced the idea that growing Downtown should be one of our top priorities. 

Just look at what’s been happening with the plan for a new Heymann Performing Arts Center. If Downtown were a priority, like it is for Pensacola, we would be exhausting every Downtown option before looking elsewhere. Instead, we barely considered a single location there, and instead more focus has been spent locating the facility on vacant land in UL’s research park across from the Cajundome. 

Second, the quality of economic opportunity matters. Lafayette is blessed with numerous locally owned, innovative, market leading companies. But we can’t afford to ignore that our economy is still facing serious challenges. Especially for younger people looking to start their careers.

The survey data backs this up. Only 38% of respondents thought Lafayette’s shared vision for job growth was good or excellent. Out of the people who thought Lafayette’s quality of life will worsen over the next five years, the second biggest reason for that was a poor economy. The third highest was a poor job market. And out of people who said that they’re either very or somewhat likely to leave in the next five years, a poor economy was the number one reason with 42% and a poor job market was second at 23%.

This data backs up concerns that I’ve had for years. We promote our lower cost workforce to try and convince companies to move here. But the flip side is that young people struggle to find entry level jobs in this area offering starting salaries they can live on. 

Plus I’ve had multiple friends lament the jobs they can get don’t offer career paths with potential for upward mobility. 

You can chalk some of that up to life in a small city with a less dynamic economy. But how do you explain Pensacola’s progress? 

My great fear is that we stay so satisfied with our quality of life that we ignore existential threats. If we can’t keep our young people from moving away and become a place that attracts young people to move here, then our economy will effectively be a leaky balloon that slowly deflates over time.

“Communities can be dying but don’t know it,” Studer told me. That message shook me. And it should shake you too.