As Lafayette struggles to keep young people and attract the jobs they’re leaving for, Downtown is positioned to be a crucial asset in the fight to keep them here.
For years, experts from around the country have pointed to Downtown as Lafayette’s solution to breaking the cycle of young workers leaving for better jobs and employers following them to other cities with pools of talent.
But Lafayette’s investment in Downtown has been slow, and the frequent hiccups that have stymied growth in the city center illustrate what has been a less than urgent effort to make it an asset young people feel is worth staying for.
“When I came here right after college in 1999, Downtown was pretty much dead,” recalls Kevin Blanchard, executive director of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority. “There were some nightclubs, and that’s what kind of brought people Downtown. But a lot of businesses had moved out or were on their way out, and there certainly wasn’t any discussion about making this a cooler, better Downtown.”
But that tide has changed in recent years, as renewed investment has stemmed from the growing interest among young people in living, working and enjoying life Downtown.
In just the past few years, Lafayette Consolidated Government has spent millions of dollars and budgeted millions more on improvements to the city center, like a new police precinct, major drainage upgrades and a long-awaited fix for the Buchanan Street parking garage.
The recent resurgence of sewage limitations Downtown is evidence of both trends. Despite a major, and unconventional, investment in additional sewage capacity for Downtown’s long-neglected infrastructure by Blanchard’s organization LPTFA in 2020, residential growth in and around Downtown led to the need for another intervention to add capacity this year.
In just the past five years, new developments have added hundreds of apartments to the city center and have brought vacant properties like the old federal courthouse — once called Lafayette’s “Monument of Indecision” — back into the fray as assets, rather than eyesores.
The investment in housing, particularly with earlier projects like the Vermilion Lofts and The Municipal, was a crucial step in making Downtown the kind of asset young people value, says Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud, and having support for those investments from Lafayette’s local government was key to making them happen.
“The [old] federal courthouse is the perfect example of that,” Begnaud says. “It sat vacant for over 20 years. Anyone who was anyone who’d done any sort of urban revitalization work, any sort of infill development work, said this is where you can start. You’re in the perfect scenario. The city owns the property. You can control the destiny.”
Lowering the barrier to new housing Downtown is vital to Lafayette’s efforts to keep young talent here, since living in Downtown offers unique qualities that young people want to see more of in Lafayette, according to early responses to One Acadiana’s ongoing survey of UL students about quality of life in Lafayette, says 1A Vice President of Policy Initiatives and Governmental Affairs André Breaux.
“There’s a desire for the ability for things to be in more of a walkable, bikeable distance, which is the advantage of having a thriving downtown with housing opportunities…You have housing adjacent to amenities so you don’t have that problem with the time it takes to get around and not being able to walk or bike places,” he says.
The regional chamber is planning to present its findings at the Acadiana Center for the Arts on Nov. 1.
The recent growth in Downtown has made it attractive for employers looking to expand or relocate from other parts of the country, like CGI and SchoolMint, as well as emerging small businesses.
That’s part of the rationale behind One Acadiana’s motivation for investing in entrepreneurship Downtown with its Small Business Challenge, says Breaux, and it’s part of why improving Downtown needs to be a continued priority for Lafayette as a whole.
“We’re not just investing in Downtown as an end unto itself,” he says. “We’re investing in Downtown as a community asset, as a quality-of-life amenity, as a way to attract people here and keep them here, so they can raise their families here and help our companies here continue to thrive and grow our economy.”
So far, the payoff has been a growing transformation of Downtown from a daytime office park to a hub of after-hours activity for the city. It’s a cause and effect of a major change in attitudes toward Downtown’s role in Lafayette that acknowledges the city center as a local priority, says Begnaud. The result, at least to this point, is a burgeoning neighborhood that, with the right attention and investment, could be the key to a vibrant Downtown that gives young workers one more reason to stay in Lafayette.
“When you travel to other cities, you see people who live in that apartment that you literally just walked past walking their dog, running past you, whatever it may be. And we’re starting to see that here,” says Begnaud. “That’s a really strong signal, and it’s building the capacity to provide for more of that. It’s more eyes on the street. It’s more feet on the sidewalks. It’s more people spending money at businesses, and that’s how the ecosystem comes up together.”