Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Geoff Daily: Heymann replacement plan is selling us short

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

Does Lafayette want to be a great city or are we satisfied with mediocrity?

Our community’s leaders have spent a lot of time in recent years touring cities held up as models of greatness, where leaders rallied around visionary plans that catalyzed massive public and private investments in infrastructure and development. 

When I consider how Lafayette is moving forward on a new performing arts center, I see a massive disconnect. I don’t see a community striving for greatness. I don’t see leaders focused on maximizing the impact of this generational investment.

Instead, I see us prioritizing short-term political opportunism over what’s in the best long-term interests of our community.

A perfect example of this short-sightedness is the request for proposals issued by Lafayette Consolidated Government to determine where to locate this new facility. In my mind, there are three key aspects that should matter most when deciding where to invest potentially $150 million in building a new performing arts center:

  • User experience 
  • Follow-on private investment
  • Overall economic impact

These three feed into each other. Creating a great experience for patrons helps to attract nearby real estate development, which helps to generate the most economic development impact in terms of generating new tax revenue and helping us develop the kind of vibrancy in our community that attracts and retains our best and brightest.

But let’s compare this with how the RFP will score properties and proposals:

  • Cost and ease of acquisition: 25 points
  • How fast construction can start: 20 points
  • Property characteristics: 15 points
  • Accessibility: 25 points
  • Area around the property: 15 points

The number one scoring criteria is how cheap and easy it will be to acquire the property. That’s a “penny-wise pound-foolish” approach. Even if LCG had to pay full market rate for land, the few acres required for this project would represent probably 1-2% of the overall $150 million-plus project cost. It’s effectively a rounding error that this process makes its top priority.

Turnover of the property is given the third most weight, but that’s arguably the most irrelevant factor. It’s judging factors like the timeline for when construction can start, but we haven’t even started the design and engineering process! We’re at least two years away from turning dirt, yet this scoring is prioritizing projects that can start construction immediately.

“Characteristics of the property” and “the area surrounding the property” are given the least amount of weight. In fact, “development potential for surrounding area” is literally the last item on the lowest weighted category.

This scoring rubric does not prioritize locations that will give the best experience for patrons, or attract the most follow-on investment in adjacent development, or catalyze the most economic development benefits. 

In fact, this RFP practically hands the performing arts center to the UL Research Park site. While I can understand why some think that site is the best location, it drives me nuts that we continue to ignore some key limitations of that site, like:

UL doesn’t pay property taxes, so follow-on development may not generate new net tax revenue. 

For every $100 million of potential private investment, that’s $1.25 million in parish tax revenue and $250,000 in city tax revenue we’d forgo every year. Over the next 30 years, that’s $45 million in tax revenue we’d be giving up for every $100 million of follow-on investment. 

UL doesn’t have a track record of successful retail development. 

For all of UL’s great success developing new student housing, it has had little if any success catalyzing the development of new retail. Why assume that will change, especially when UL has had a plan to develop retail in its Research Park that’s almost 10 years old without any progress?

Traffic could be a nightmare. 

As much as critics of a Downtown location like to point out issues with traffic, the intersection of Cajundome and Congress can already be a nightmare after UL football games or on graduation nights. Imagine how much more apocalyptic that will get if we also have a new performing arts center with an event at the same time.

Any community striving for greatness wouldn’t stick its head in the sand about these important issues. Its leaders wouldn’t gloss over these real challenges and prioritize expediency over impact. 

And that’s just dealing with a location. We still have major issues about the finances of this project that have not yet been addressed.

Namely, we don’t know how much it’s going to actually cost to build a new facility. We haven’t set out whether we’re trying to build an amazing and special new performing arts center or just build whatever we can afford. It’s still not clear how exactly we plan to finance it. And, of course, we still don’t know how we’ll pay the ongoing operating subsidy that will be required.

I’m as big a booster of doing this project as anyone, but this is not the right way to do something great. Sure, we’ll get a new facility faster this way. But it won’t be the best it can be. Not even close.