▸ The gist: Last week Jeff Jenkins, one of Bernhard Capital Partners’ founders, told The Current the company’s plans for LUS include making it part of what will ultimately be a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette. This week, his partner Jim Bernhard confirms that Lafayette has out-of-state competition for that proposed corporate headquarters, a city Bernhard says has an “advantage” over Lafayette because that contemplated transaction has not leaked to the press.
▸ Jim Bernhard points his finger at an unnamed “disgruntled employee.” (On July 13, The Current broke the story of the Robideaux administration’s plans to entertain an offer from BCP to manage LUS’s electric division.) “They have a utility we are attracted to, we looked at the university there and also because of the oil and gas industry there — we felt it was a place we could attract people to work for a long period of time,” Bernhard says. “We thought Lafayette was a good opportunity, and we thought it was the right place, but the other place has an advantage because we were not prepared to go public with our plans in Lafayette when some disgruntled employee leaked the information. But we decided we were not going to let a disgruntled person derail our plans, so we regrouped.”
▸ Bernhard says $15 billion will be invested in the new venture. Last week Jenkins would only say the company was in talks with “multiple” entities like LUS across the South, but Bernhard is now being more specific, saying the company hopes to acquire or take over management of 30 to 40 power companies in “mostly in small cities. They range in different sizes from $1 billion to $100 million.” While an early BCP assessment valued LUS’s electric division just north of $525 million, a comprehensive appraisal of the city-owned utility is still underway, and terms of a potential agreement could change.
▸ It’s unlikely this deal will fly in Lafayette, says one former LUS employee. Andrew Duhon, who retired from LUS in January 2017 after nearly 30 years — most recently as customer and support services manager — understands why LUS is so enticing. “We’re really like the star in the public power arena,” he says. Duhon, however, can’t imagine any scenario under which Lafayette stakeholders give up control of their 120-year-old utility system. He says since the early 1940s, when LUS was in desperate need of upgrades, poorly managed and in jeopardy of being taken over, the public has shown a willingness to reinvest. “Despite a much bleaker picture for the utility back then versus the model system we have today, the people of Lafayette decided to keep [the] system. They issued bonds for new generating facilities and developed a model bond ordinance that, among other things, required a well-managed system run by professionals,” recalls Duhon, who also is a CPA. “The citizens of Lafayette in the ’40s knew what they had — control of their economic destiny through ownership of their utility,” he adds. “Public power consistently beats investor-owned utilities in rates, in reliability, in service, in accessibility.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Riegel
As part of its plan to take over management of LUS’s electric division, Bernhard Capital Partners is presenting a vision of creating a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette.
▸ The gist: Longtime Cajundome Director Greg Davis didn't think it was right that he hold onto his $160,000 a year job while having to deliver news to seven other employees that their positions were being eliminated. So the 63-year-old, who has worked for the Cajundome since it opened in 1985 — 25 years as director — announced he'll retire at the end of October, three years earlier than he'd planned.
▸ His second in command, Pam Deville, was elevated to director, a move that alone will cut $120,000 in salary expenses. In all, Davis' plan will save the struggling venue half a million dollars, a figure that represents a 13 percent reduction from the $3.8 million it spent on payroll (including taxes and benefits) in 2018. The venue's annual operating budget is $7.8 million.
The drastic steps were prompted by a $400,000 deficit for the current fiscal year, a number that for the first time exceeds the operating subsidy paid by Lafayette Consolidated Government to prop up the entertainment venue. That subsidy, $392,000, was cut to $376,000 for next fiscal year; in recent years it was as much as $500,000, and at times — like at the height of the IceGators' popularity— has been zero (another $100,000 LCG provides annually can't be used for operations). Davis says a study by LEDA concluded that the the subsidy averaged $358,000 annually for the first 30 years of the Cajundome's existence.
"I'd been looking at this [financial situation] for at least four to six months," Davis says, explaining that he was holding out hope a couple more concerts would be booked in the current year. That didn't happen. And concerts are where the money is.
▸ It's the economy, stupid. While Lafayette's economy may be showing signs of stabilization in the aftermath of the hit it took from low oil prices and resulting job losses, concert promoters seem to think we're still suffering too much to take a chance on us, Davis suggests. "I think we're going to overcome it. We're going to book more concerts. You book the right concert in this market, and it will do well." Case in point: the Garth Brooks series, which accounted for five of the eight concerts the Cajundome hosted last fiscal year. Brooks alone sent $217,400 directly to the Cajundome's bottom line from ticket and suite sales, concessions and merchandise. Eight concerts, which is the Cajundome's average, were enough to finish last year in the black, the six booked this fiscal year were not. In past years, the venue has hosted as many as 10-12 concerts.
Davis is leaving the Cajundome in competent hands and in great physical condition, the result of a $21 million renovation completed in December 2016. That capital improvement (and the construction of the convention center) was funded by a bond sale backed by the Lafayette Parish hotel-motel tax the state rebates to the venue, money that can be used for capital improvements and maintenance but not for operations.
▸ What's next for Davis? The community activist and lifelong North Lafayette resident plans to continue devoting much of his attention to education reform, specifically reversing the mindset that black children, especially poor black children, are incapable of excelling academically. He's on the board of TM Landry College Prep, which is moving from Breaux Bridge to Lafayette in September, taking over the former call center at Northgate Mall. "TM Landry is ... a walking contradiction to that belief," Davis says. "It's going to provide outstanding examples of black children who are achieving at high academic levels to overcome this myth that because of the color of your skin and because you are poor, that you are not capable of high achievement."
Much of the City-Parish Council, already disillusioned that it was left in the dark during negotiations, appears unified in opposition to LUS’s electrical division changing hands.
Talks between the Robideaux administration and Bernhard Capital Partners over the potential purchase of Lafayette Utilities System have been ongoing since at least the beginning of the year.
[UPDATE: Chris Williams has resigned. Read The Advertiser’s June 8 story here.] ▸ The gist: SMILE Community Action Agency remains in a state of utter chaos. With Williams at the helm, the agency last year lost $14 million in federal funding to operate Head Start and Early Head Start learning classes in Iberia, Lafayette and St. Martin parishes. A cloud of controversy […]