Lafayette is a Parish
Lafayette Parish was established in 1823 and is now home to more than 240,000 residents. On this episode, Marie Elizabeth Oliver dives into the history and development of Lafayette Parish with help from guests Lynn Guidry, Andrew Godley and Purvis Morrison.
Editor’s Note: Hey y’all, we recorded these episodes in 2022. Since then, two people we interviewed have launched campaigns for office. The Current is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates. We decided to keep these interviews because of the perspectives they represent. Thanks!
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: It’s the heart of Cajun and Creole country. The hub city. The happiest city. The center of the once-booming Gulf oil industry. Lafayette is called many things, but for those of us who live or grew up here, it’s simply: home.
I’m Marie Elizabeth Oliver reporting for The Current, and this is Lafayette 101: Lafayette is a Parish.
I was born in Acadiana and grew up here surrounded by a large extended family. I moved away after college. And now I’m back, almost 20 years later, raising my own family in Lafayette.
This has always felt like home to me. But, there have always been things about Lafayette I just didn’t understand, especially when it comes to government. In Lafayette 101, I used my reporting background to talk to people who really “get” Lafayette.
In each episode, they share their knowledge and real life experiences. Their stories helped me to understand Lafayette better. I hope they can help you, too.
So let’s dig in!
Valerie Nehrbass-Vidrine: My name is Valerie Nehrbass-Vidrine. I am almost 33 years old, and I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana. I have already left and I have come back. I left for school, and then I returned for a multitude of reasons, mostly including family and culture and a feeling that can’t necessarily be described that Lafayette gives me. I believe in Lafayette because there’s a reason that people leave and come back—repeatedly.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Lafayette Parish was established in 1823 and is now home to more than 240,000 residents. The parish government is responsible for their collective health and safety (think: roads, drainage, fire protection, law enforcement). It’s an umbrella, connecting the dots between Lafayette’s cities, towns and unincorporated areas.
Lynn Guidry is a former Carencro city and Lafayette Parish councilman and architect. He explains how Lafayette formed as a hub around one growing metropolis—the city of Lafayette. Back in 1836, the governing body of Lafayette Parish passed a tax to build five roads connecting Lafayette to Abbeville, Crowley, St. Martinville, Opelousas and New Iberia.
Lynn Guidry: All roads led to Lafayette, and Lafayette became known as a Hub City, and it was kind of an unofficial—I mean, it still is—an unofficial title, but it was because we were the hub of the wheel of all the roads. And so, as an example, if you were in New Iberia in 1836, and you wanted to go to Abbeville, what you would do is you would go on the road to Lafayette, then go to Abbeville and the way back, same thing. Well, what happened with that was commerce.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: The Hub City nickname stuck—we even have the diner to prove it. And over the next two centuries, the city of Lafayette grew as a center for retail, business, culture and higher education. As a result, the surrounding municipalities and communities evolved— primarily around agriculture.
Lynn Guidry: The biggest difference I see is that, you know, obviously there’s still an agricultural component to the parish and there are, you don’t see that in the city of Lafayette very much, you know, you might have little farms here and there, but you’ve got parts of Lafayette Parish that are very rural still, and that are used for agricultural purposes, and by that I mean not only growing crops, but cattle, horses, that kind of thing.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: When the city and parish governments consolidated in the ‘90s, the population of Lafayette (the city) made up 57% of the parish. The governmental union was built around a growing and thriving parish seat, which supported the smaller towns around it. But in recent years, the tide has shifted.
In 2020, the population of the city of Lafayette made up just 50.2% of the population of Lafayette Parish. Its population remained almost stagnant for the past decade. Recent estimates suggest it may already be below 50%. Meanwhile, the surrounding cities continue to see major growth. None quite as dramatic as Youngsville, which has grown more than 96% since 1990. Guidry says Youngsville’s growth can be attributed to a savvy transition away from agriculture.
Lynn Guidry: They’re still in that sugarcane business, but they’re also now in the land development business, which has made the growth around Youngsville and Broussard accelerate because it’s so easy, a developer can go over there, deal with one property owner, deal with a reasonable city council, city administration, city mayor, and get a project done and make money, and let’s face it. That’s what it’s about, about making money.
Lauren Leonpacher: My name is Lauren Leonpacher, and I’m 30 years old. I probably would have never left Youngsville or Lafayette had it not been for access to affordable property, housing and flooding. So I went about 15 minutes north into Saint Landry Parish to try to get a little bit of property and a house that I could afford to fix up, and maybe not be at risk of driving through 8 inches of water in bad rain events. But I cannot not see myself ever living anywhere but Acadiana.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Andrew Godley of Parish Brewing has built a beer company with a cult following in the city of Broussard. His story reveals why certain businesses have opted to set up shop “outside the hub” and illustrates one of the key tensions driving development in the parish.
Godley discovered beer culture while working as an engineer for a Fortune 500 company in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. When he moved back home to Lafayette Parish a few years later, he had a vision for what could be possible. He built a pilot brewery near his house—with the goal of evolving to a space Downtown. The beer experiment turned out great. The real estate quest, not so much. After finally landing on a potential space, he discovered it needed “a lot of work.”
Andrew Godley: It didn’t have a connection to the city sewer. It was just old and something about it had been degraded to the point where it wasn’t functional, and I needed to connect to the city sewer. And so that was a big part of a meeting I had with some of these folks, some of the bureaucracy within Lafayette city government to essentially get their permission to proceed and do work and start building out this facility.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Godley met with Lafayette city government officials. They told him he had to commit to building an expensive water pretreatment process and commission a professionally engineered report. All together, this would cost a few hundred-thousand dollars out of his pocket.
Andrew Godley: I’m an individual citizen of Lafayette that doesn’t have a lot of money. I’m trying to start a business, you know, organically within the city of Lafayette. The vibe was, “maybe you don’t want to build your business in the city of Lafayette then.” It just made me feel very unwelcome. Like the city was not, there were elements of the bureaucracy essentially that didn’t want to accommodate me.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Ultimately, Godley decided to look for real estate outside of Downtown Lafayette and find what he calls a “path of least resistance.” He was shocked when he started investigating what it would take to open a similar brewery space in Broussard.
Andrew Godley: Where I met with in Lafayette, you know, eight, nine, 10 different people who all were asking me to spend additional money to do something in order to meet their requirements, in the city of Broussard, it was just one person. It was the mayor. And, you know, when describing to him, what I thought I was going to have to do in Broussard in order to get permission, to build a business based on my experience in Lafayette having to see all of the obstacles there, he said to me: ”Son, let me just tell you something, this ain’t the city of Lafayette.”
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Godley says he understands the Lafayette city officials were just doing their jobs. They had no incentive to take a chance on a startup like his. But, the city’s red tape and lack of support changed where he built his business. In the end, Godley fulfilled his dream of building a global beer distribution company—in Broussard—where the mayor was willing to do whatever it took to support his future growth.
Cole Pham: I believe in Lafayette because Lafayette believed in me. I’m a product of Lafayette. I was able to do all the things I’ve done in my life because I’m from here and because I was gifted the resources that I was gifted from the people here and from this city. And I’m forever grateful for those things. Even though people my age or older might have things to say about Lafayette, but they have no other options. I believe in Lafayette because those kids are going to grow up and make it their own thing as well.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Lafayette is a Parish—built around a once-vibrant city center. Now, it’s characterized by sprawl. But there’s one piece of the puzzle not represented in this picture. They’re known as unincorporated areas—meaning they are not officially part of any city—but they are part of Lafayette Parish. This rural land has ties to both the past and future of the Parish.
Purvis Morrison: Our small towns have grown immensely.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: That’s Purvis Morrison, a former mayor of Scott, and city-parish councilman, who served on the Lafayette City-Parish Alignment Commission. He says these areas, while sometimes overlooked, are crucial to Lafayette’s way forward.
Purvis Morrison: The small towns, they don’t care to annex 100 acres of property and try to incorporate that. It is very costly, but when all that’s gonna get congested, where will the parish go? Into the unincorporated areas. That’s where they’re gonna have to grow. So what plan do we have for that?
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Until then, there’s an interesting dynamic at play. Parish residents in the more rural unincorporated areas and residents living in the city limits of Lafayette are all lumped together under Lafayette Consolidated Government. (Unlike the cities of Youngsville and Broussard who maintain their own governments.) Unincorporated residents have a different relationship with their government than people who live in the city. They have access to fewer public services, but they also have fewer taxes and regulations. Morrison sees the benefit of the Parish government supporting services to these areas because they pave the way for new growth.
Purvis Morrison: You know, I mean, that’s the part, I mean, it might not happen in my time, might not be in yours, but one at one point is gonna be all, all this is gonna be one big metropolitan area, and that’s gonna happen.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Morrison’s vision echoes a longstanding view among local leaders: Lafayette is destined to be one, big metro area. That was the logic of consolidation—the inevitability of Lafayette’s growth.
It turned out to be more complicated than that. Where we chose to live and spend our money shapes the identity of our parish. Our local government has an effect on these decisions, whether we like it or not. We’re going to look more into all of these factors at the city level in our next episode.
I’m Marie Elizabeth Oliver and this has been Lafayette 101: Lafayette is a Parish. Don’t miss our next episode, Lafayette is a City.
Lafayette 101 is a production of the Current Media Incorporated. Our theme music is by Lost Bayou Ramblers. The show was mixed and edited by Aaron Thomas. A special thanks to our media partners, KRVS 88.7-FM and AOC Community Media. You can read a transcript of this and previous episodes, as well as more how-to guides and reporting at thecurrentla.com.