Workers are leaving big cities. Can Lafayette attract them?

Brass band plays outside a big mural
Researchers say migrating workers are looking for good jobs and a high quality of life. Photo by LeeAnn Stephen

The gist: Tech and other knowledge workers are leaving megastar metros like New York and Seattle. Where does Lafayette fit in? 

Brains are draining out of America’s “superstar” cities and flowing to smaller markets. The trend accelerated at the onset of the pandemic and hasn’t let off the gas yet

Affordability is driving the shift as even high earners are struggling to pay their bills in meccas like New York and San Francisco. Even as housing costs rise in Lafayette, cheaper living would appear to be an edge LFT can offer. 

“One advantage we have, or even had, could be cost of living,” Wagner says. “Lafayette Parish and the city are quickly becoming out of reach for young professionals and first-time buyers.” 

Meanwhile, 60,000 college-educated workers left Louisiana in 2021, according to an analysis by UL economist Gary Wagner. Depopulation is pronounced in rural areas of the South. Lafayette Parish grew in the last census, but much of that growth appeared to come from elsewhere in Acadiana. 

Winning destinations are emerging superstar cities like Austin — which faces its own affordability problems — that have lots of things to do and bustling job markets. But some smaller metros comparable to Lafayette are making gains, too. 

Chickens and eggs. To attract the coastal brain drain, cities have to have jobs they want. But how do you develop industries to produce those jobs without a workforce? 

Enter Tulsa Remote. Once Oklahoma’s oil mecca, Tulsa has made waves with Tulsa Remote, which pays remote workers to relocate there. The program has attracted 1,200 workers since 2018 and is a closely watched experiment. 

40% of Tulsa Remote participants had ties to Tulsa, according to an analysis by D.C. think tank Economic Innovation Group. That suggests boomerangs are a big ingredient in a successful campaign — so is massive public and private investment in quality of life programs. 

There’s a commitment to quality of place,” says Kenan Fikri, EIG’s director of research. “Tulsa has major philanthropic, public and private support in spaces.” 

So is it jobs or is it place? The answer is both, Fikri says. And so is fostering local entrepreneurship. 

“Imagine you didn’t invest in quality of life or place, you might end up losing the talent you have,” he says. 

Lafayette is spending millions on Downtown infrastructure. And place-making has become a rallying cry for economic leadership. Indeed, marketing played a big role in Tulsa Remote’s success to date. 

Economic leadership has several irons in the fire to sharpen Lafayette’s edge, says LEDA CEO Mandi Mitchell, including efforts to court expats and develop more entrepreneurship. 

[Lafayette] needs … to get the word out about how great of a community we are,” says Mitchell. “And what we have to offer to professionals who aren’t tethered to their current locale.”

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