Lafayette General dives into Opportunity Funds

The gist: Lafayette General Health will use a new federal tax advantage program, created by the 2017 tax overhaul, to develop near the Oil Center and invest in healthcare startups. The hospital announced the move at an information session about federal Opportunity Funds, held Wednesday.

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Opportunity Funds are a new form of investment vehicle that provides tax advantages meant to spur investment in Opportunity Zones.

Opportunity Zones are low-income census tracts that were nominated by local governments, selected by governors, and approved by the federal government last summer.

Lafayette’s Opportunity Zones include the Oil Center, UL’s main campus, downtown, and the University Avenue corridor from downtown up past I-10 almost to Carencro.

LGH has already been investing in real estate. Over the last few years, through the Lafayette General Foundation LGH has established a Real Estate Investment Fund (REIF), which acquires, finances, or develops real estate that LGH leases.

Now it has plans for developing Hospital Drive. Big plans, in fact, including a 3 to 5 story medical office building that will be a new home for the Cancer Center of Acadiana and LGH’s neuroscience work. This development will also include housing for LGH’s medical residents and retail space.

The project could breath new life into the Oil Center. The Oil Center could have been River Ranch, LGH CEO David Callecod told conference-goers, because it’s a safe walkable community with retail and restaurants; it just never had much housing. The Hospital Drive development project will create a live/work/play experience for LGH’s medical residents, with the longview of encouraging them to start their practices in Lafayette once they graduate medical school.

Opportunity Funds are ideal for enabling LGH’s aspirations. While LGH was already investing in real estate, because the Oil Center was selected as an Opportunity Zone LGH can create an Opportunity Fund to provide additional tax advantages to recruit investors to help fund the development project.

And real estate may only be the beginning. Opportunity Funds can also be used to invest in companies. For some time, LGH has been investing in health care startups through its Healthcare Innovation Fund. And it’s currently looking at making an investment in a company that may be relocating its headquarters to the Oil Center. If that company is successful, then in the future LGH’s Opportunity Fund could provide additional investment capital to fuel further growth of this as-of-yet-unnamed startup.

LGH is already reaping rewards for investing in startups. At the event, Cian Robinson, executive director of innovation, research, and real estate investments at LGH, announced that the fund had its first successful exit. Start-up HealthLoop was purchased last fall for $200 million. LGH invested around $1.5 million into the company, clearing $4 million in just a few years with the sale. LGH is currently raising funds for its second Health Innovation Fund.

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When dedicated taxes lock up options

Voters demand flexibility and quick responses, but representatives are hamstrung in their ability to divert dedicated funds.

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Drag Queen Story Time (sort of) happened with no flare up

The gist: Supporters held two private drag queen readings at a public library branch Sunday to muted protest and little else. Threats of violence and heavy protesting didn't materialize.

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The scene was relatively uneventful. A few dozen families showed up for the readings, held in two sessions at the South Regional Branch of the Lafayette Public Library. Kids got their faces painted, held balloons, did the hokey pokey and listened to three drag queens read stories about tolerance. Outside, Catholic protestors prayed the rosary and sang hymns over bagpipes, holding signs with slogans like "Drag Queens = Childhood's End."

"If we allow the corruption of children to happen, then we are corrupted as well," Thomas Drake, a protest organizer, told KLFY.

All bark and no bite is how Story Time organizer Aimee Robinson described the threats of violence that harried the event, most of which were on social media threads posted by local news outlets and Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. The library paid for several LPD officers to provide security. The three drag queens were escorted to and from their cars by the officers.

"They went above and beyond," Robinson says of the officers assigned, describing them as kind, courteous and understanding. "I couldn't be happier. My hat's off to them."

https://vimeo.com/315331614

Supporters are calling it a victory. Sunday's readings were not directly related to last fall's library-sponsored event, organized in collaboration with an LBGTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette, that ignited controversy and drew a failed and spurious federal law suit. Robinson says it nevertheless took a lot to pull the readings off, which were originally scheduled in December.

"We had to get the ACLU involved," she says. After the original library-sponsored event was canceled (crowd control/safety being the purported reason), Robinson and fellow supporters booked a room for a private, Christmas-themed reading. That effort was blocked at the last minute when attorneys representing the library and Lafayette Consolidated Government produced a room reservation form that effectively banned any drag queen-related events until the federal suit was complete. (The suit was dismissed last week.) The ACLU intervened and the library and city officials agreed to strike the reservation form, a clear First Amendment violation, paving the way for Sunday's readings.

What to watch for: More readings and if the library ever officially hosts Drag Queen Story Time. Robinson says she intends to hold more private readings, potentially in Breaux Bridge. Many opponents say their issue wasn't with DQST itself, but that the library sponsored and promoted the event last fall. The library had attempted to move that event from its Downtown branch to the South Louisiana Community College, where it was ultimately postponed amid security concerns. In a press release at the time, library officials committed to hosting DQST with the fraternity in the future.

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After years waiting, The Advocate swoops on The Daily Advertiser

The Advocate has pounced on The Daily Advertiser’s newsroom, snatching up several reporters and a senior staffer in a coup that could cripple Lafayette’s flailing daily.

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Drag Queen Story Time suit officially dismissed

The gist: A spurious federal lawsuit filed to stop the library's Drag Queen Story Time event planned last fall was formally dismissed Jan. 31. The court ruled the out-of-state fringe Christian organizations that filed suit had no standing.

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The ruling was long expected. A federal magistrate recommended the case be thrown out last month, saying plaintiffs Chris Sevier and John Gunter Jr. failed to show “dollars-and-cents” injury from the library’s organization of Drag Queen Story Time, given the pair live out of state and don’t pay local property taxes. Both Lafayette Consolidated Government (by way of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux) and the Lafayette Public Library (by way of Director Teresa Elberson) were named defendants in the suit.

Sevier, an attorney and EDM producer, is a litigious agitator on LGBTQ+ issues — same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc. — and has filed dozens of suits on bizarre grounds across the country. His cases typically argue the LGBTQ+ community is in effect a faith ideology. Any government interaction, he claims, like issuing marriage licenses or promoting a Drag Queen Story Time, is tantamount to state-sponsorship of a religion, and thus a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. He teamed up with West Virginia-based extremist Christian ministry Warriors for Christ to sue the Lafayette Public Library.

“By bringing this lawsuit, we are unapologetically and firmly defending the civil rights movement led by pastor Martin Luther King," Sevier told News 15 last year. Sevier made national headlines for other legal stunts like suing Utah for the right to marry his computer and Apple for not preventing porn from ruining his marriage.

Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna was clearly exasperated with the case in December. He complained the court was "snowed in" by Warriors for Christ filings during a hearing on an ACLU intervention into the case on behalf of DQST supporters.

Drag Queen Story Time is back. Supporters have booked two private readings at the library's south regional branch this Sunday. Religious groups and opponents have begun circulating information about it. Organizers say they expect some protests and have arranged for security. Sunday's events are not directly affiliated with the program, planned by an LGBTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette, that sparked the last few months of controversy and attracted the attention of Sevier and Warriors for Christ.

That event was postponed indefinitely when a venue big enough to accommodate scores of sympathizers and protestors couldn't be found.

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2018 Lafayette Parish retail sales projected to top $6 billion

The gist: Year-to-date sales in Lafayette Parish approached $5.5 billion through November 2018, according to a release from LEDA, on pace to surpass $6 billion. That puts local commerce in shouting distance of 2014’s $6.4 billion peak with a month of reports to go.  

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Total taxable sales in the parish were up 4.4 percent from 2017 and 5.6 percent from 2016 in that time period.

But the city’s lagging behind: The city of Lafayette performed the worst among municipalities, up only 1.4 percent, compared with 28.2 percent in Duson, 19.3 percent in Youngsville, 17.3 percent in Scott, and 9.2 percent in Carencro. Even unincorporated Lafayette Parish beat the city with a 3.7 percent uptick.

More than 70 percent of the total retail sales in the parish happen in the city of Lafayette. It’s still the region’s shopping anchor. In the city, apparel, general merchandise and building material sales are all down from last year. LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux says that’s in part due to belt-tightening and a correction from flood-related boosts in construction.

“The downturn forced people to curtail spending,” Gothreaux says. “Apparel is something that can easily be put off, and the sales numbers over the past four years reflect that. People focused on purchasing necessities — looking for the best bargains — or may have occasionally splurged at the hot, new store. The 2016 flood spurred a modest increase in building materials sales that has since returned to pre-flood levels.”

Up but still down: While the parish’s performance might be up from last year, sales through November were off more than $300 million from 2014. The cities of Lafayette and Broussard and the unincorporated parts of the parish are all down more than $100 million each from where they were back then.

Up and up and up: But some parts of the parish have seen a steady rise in retail sales despite the economic downturn in the parish the last few years. Youngsville‘s up about $60 million since 2014, Scott about $40 million and Carencro more than $50 million.

Duson‘s all over the place: If you compare 2018 to 2014, Duson’s down about $1 million. But if you compare it to 2013, it’s up almost $11 million. But then if you compare it to 2012, it’s down more than $24 million. What’s going on in Duson?

More sales = more revenue for government, but in a good way: When total taxable sales go up, so too do sales tax revenues for schools, city governments, and economic development districts. That means more money for government without having to raise taxes. Modest increases in sales tax receipts in the unincorporated area helped patch a temporary budget hole when a plan to sell a parish-owned parking garage to the city fell through. Unincorporated Lafayette parish has been routinely raided of its sales tax revenue through annexations by nearby towns and cities.

Good news, but ... Rising retail sales is an indisputably good thing. But Lafayette still has a ways to grow to recover lost ground. So while we celebrate finally getting some good economic news, let’s not forget that this just suggests the bleeding has stopped. There is still a lot of healing left to do.

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Letter: A public apology is in order

Anyone with personal knowledge of the workings of the library knows the people who volunteer to serve on the board of control always act solely in the best interest of the library system and the public.

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Downtown is staring at a residential breakthrough

The gist: Waitr is busy taking over the Lemoine building. CGI is sniffing for office space. Meanwhile, new residential projects in the works could break down the housing dam.

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Vermilion Lofts broke ground last week to some who’s who fanfare. The project, a mixed-use development at Johnston Street and W. Vermilion Street, represents something of a coup for Downtown. Scheduled for completion by fall of this year, the loft development will feature 24 units (studios and two-bedroom apartments) and 3,600 square feet of commercial space on the bottom floor. Developments like Vermilion Lofts are the norm in successful urban centers; Lafayette’s got a long way to go.

“This project will set the tone for the future,” Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud told onlookers, basking in “chamber of commerce” sun. (No fewer than three speakers made use of that turn of phrase.) “This is what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Housing is showing up at the right time. Waitr has moved into the top floor of the Lemoine building at the north end of Jefferson Street and is reportedly slated to take over all three floors in the not-so-distant future. The app company’s rapid expansion is poised to bring scores of new jobs, if not hundreds. Meanwhile, tech consultant CGI has been after space Downtown to accommodate 400 new jobs announced in an extended incentive deal with the state last year. This is the virtuous cycle of urban development. Who knows, maybe a grocery store is next *insert interrobang.*

“We need to ask the question if there’s good alignment among all the pieces,” Begnaud says of the outlook. “How do we move at the speed of business to make it as cost efficient and timely. Those conversations are starting to happen.”

Vermilion Lofts makes four substantial housing developments on the way after years in a residential quagmire. Four projects, in varying stages of development and certainty, would bring around 200 new housing units Downtown. That’s still well below the 1,000 units a 2017 market study estimated Downtown could handle. (That figure is down from 2000 in 2011.) Here’s the rundown:

  • Vermilion Lofts: 24 apartments and studios. Under construction. Estimated completion in 2019.
  • Buchanan Heights: 30 townhomes. Under construction. Estimated completion unknown.
  • The Monroe: 70 apartments. Seeking approval for HUD financing. Estimated completion one to two years.
  • Place de Lafayette: 68 apartments. In due diligence. Deadline for completion Dec. 31, 2020.

The big question: Is Downtown ready for success? Vermilion Lofts tested the limits of Lafayette’s aging wastewater system. LUS has not given the all clear on the project’s 34-unit second phase. Sewer capacity remains a challenge long term; Place de Lafayette (the old federal courthouse redevelopment) will have to invest in sewer upgrades to go forward. That project is not yet a sure thing. But it’s not just the pipes that could clog up momentum; some developers say it’s just too hard to build Downtown.

“It’s great we have a lot of momentum, but that momentum can only go so far,” Vermilion Lofts developer and architect Stephen Ortego tells me, if the district doesn’t figure out how to navigate developers through thorny regulations and higher taxes.

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Fix the ballot, Lafayette

Why is America so badly governed? Blaming voters or politicians is the wrong answer. It’s how we vote.

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Mixed forecast at Acadiana Mall: controversial owner in, H&M on the way

A national retail operator with a reputation for buying troubled malls and investing little in them bought Acadiana Mall in mid-January.

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Robideaux’s library accusations are not grounded in fact

The mayor-president has accused the library system of defrauding taxpayers to the tune of $21 million dollars. Unfortunately for his credibility, the facts don’t back up his claims.

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‘Ghost millage’ spooks council into deferring library rededication

The gist: The mayor-president claimed Tuesday night to have discovered unknown library money —  a “ghost millage,” so to speak — and spooked the council into punting on calling an election to shift $18 million from the Lafayette Public Library’s controversial fund balance. The proposal, which would shift the money to infrastructure needs, will be taken up again in the spring, pushing any public vote till the fall.

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A ghost millage is born. At the last minute, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux sprang on the council that major library construction projects were paid for by a property tax associated with a $40 million bond package approved by voters in 2002 and not, as he suggested the public likely believed, by a millage passed at the same time to pay for construction, operations and maintenance. Robideaux characterized it as a “fourth millage” that supported the library, kicking up a dust of confusion among council members. Councilman Jay Castille, who motioned to defer the election resolution in light of Robideaux’s “new” information, called it a “ghost millage.” Castille’s motion carried 7 - 2.

“This is a confusing issue,” Castille said. “Usually council members are not caught off guard like that.” Council members were flustered the info was late-coming, shared with a huddle of members minutes before Tuesday’s meeting started.

Robideaux implied the library built its fund balance in bad faith. By his account, that the word “construction” was featured on the millage passed in 2002 misled voters to believe those funds were meant for four new branches when, in fact, the projects were paid for by the $40 million bond authorization. The “ghost millage” he’s referring to is the property tax used to pay for parish debt, which includes the library bonds. Robideaux suggested the library squirreled away the separate “construction” millage until 2012, when the library then used fund balance dollars to build a library in Scott. “The library feared the public caught on,” he said, and decided to use fund balance dollars to avoid suspicion.

Robideaux told The Advocate he believes the millage language was intended to "fool" voters back in 2002.

Joel muddied up the waters and got it wrong,” Andrew Duhon, vice president of the library’s board of control, tells me. Duhon says the system has mixed fund balance and bond money to pay for all of the projects on the bond list, using cash-in-hand to avoid interest. “It’s the strongest model of financial management in the parish,” he says of the library’s stewardship. The library has sold $21 million of its $40 million authorization, tapping pay-as-you-go dollars for the rest. He insists the library has operated prudently and argues Robideaux is grasping at straws. “I think he’s in a protectionist mode,” Duhon says. “He’s tired of getting beat on, but he’s his own worst enemy.”  

I don’t understand. Neither does the Siri who lives inside LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups’ phone. The robot chimed in during council discussion. Meanwhile, information banged around the room and rarely landed with the right context. Some council members gained the impression, one arguably conjured by Robideaux, that the “ghost millage” was stealing money from roads and drainage needs; budget language pegs the general obligation bonds to pay for those things.

The “ghost millage” is not a pool of general purpose money. It pays parish debt on bonds sold.

“It wasn’t a misappropriation,” Toups replied to a pointed question from William Theriot. Theriot, echoing sentiments from other council members, sought assurance that the “ghost millage” situation wouldn’t happen again. Toups emphasized that the millage pays for the debt on the specific projects authorized in the 2002 bond package, dispelling the notion the millage is used inappropriately. So, ghost millages will continue to haunt city-parish budgeting.

What should really scare you: The number of elected officials who don’t understand how bonds work. Wherever you stand on the fundamental issue — i.e., the size of the library’s fund balance and what to do with it — council discussion revealed a startling lack of comprehension with respect to the relationship between the library’s millages and parish debt.

What to watch for: How the delay affects the proposal’s political usefulness for Robideaux. The library is a polarizing issue now, and some see his proposal as an effort to score political points in an election year.  Others view the rededication as Drag Queen Story Time retaliation. Now kicked to a fall ballot at the earliest, the transfer could appear alongside his re-election bid. That limits its value as campaign material.

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