Business + Innovation

After major revisions to old federal courthouse contract, council coming around ahead of final vote

The gist: The old federal courthouse renovation project appeared doomed last month after council members pounced on purchase provisions that placed the risk of cost overruns on Lafayette Consolidated Government. But new changes to the contract now make the deal an outright $1.4 million sale that requires the development team to pay for sewer upgrades and removing asbestos.

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A game changer: That’s how Councilman Bruce Conque describes the revision. The original deal put the $1.4 million purchase price in escrow, with excessive expenses for the project to be paid from that pool of money. In October, Conque and other council members shredded the contract at introduction, fuming that the deal put too much power in the developer’s hands and gave approval of overages to the mayor-president rather than the council. In particular, the deal would take the unusual step of saddling city-parish government with the cost of sewer upgrades needed to accommodate the 68-unit, 25,000-square-foot complex. Developers, in most cases, pay some of the upfront costs for utilities. Downtown and the city’s urban core more broadly are virtually out of sewer capacity.

Kenneth Boudreaux, a perennial no vote on previous attempts to put the city-owned Downtown property back into commerce after years of blight and vacancy, complained that all proceeds from the sale should be “profit.”

The revised purchase agreement appears to hit all major concerns levied thus far:  The sale is a lump sum transaction that requires the development team to pay for peripheral infrastructure needs. 

“I’m thrilled,” says Conque. “This benefits everyone, and this project can now move forward.

It’s not quite over. Conque and Jay Castille, another staunch opponent of previous redevelopment attempts, will propose two other amendments to the contract, one to prevent the developer from sitting on the project by eating penalty fees against rising costs, and another to require that the facility’s appearance conform to the city’s Unified Development Code. The previous version gave the mayor-president approval of the complex’s facade.

Earlier this year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux unilaterally selected the team behind the project, led by developer Jim Poche, architect David Weinstein and Ed Krampe, a personal friend of Robideaux's. 

Counting chickens: No vote is final before it’s cast, but early indications place the support count at eight. One of the assumed no votes, Boudreaux, will not be at Tuesday’s meeting after announcing health complications associated with a cancer diagnosis earlier this week. With a majority reportedly on board, approval of the contract would be a significant win for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux after months in the doghouse over his pursuit of a deal to privatize management of LUS.

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LPUA will take up lowering LUS rates

The gist: Utility rates were hiked in the last two years to pay for rising operating costs and a $240 million bond package that never came to be. On Tuesday, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux will present a pair of ordinances, one to reduce electric, water and wastewater rates and another to reclaim the revenues for a bond sale.

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NextGEN Utility Systems put a spotlight on the rates by promising to lower them for three years. In council discussions over the course of the affair, council members Kenneth Boudreaux and Bruce Conque questioned whether the rates could be lowered, given the bonds were never issued. The idea is that the rates were raised unnecessarily, and thus some value ought to be returned to LUS customers.

Conque says he would support reductions on electric rates only.

Why were rates raised in the first place? In 2016, LUS sought — and received — approval to apply for $240 million in bonds to build a new power generating plant and other pricey capital improvements. Rates were raised 8 percent to finance the debt, but the LPUA, hearing pushback on plans for the new power plant, decided on a phase-in compromise and reduced the authorized amount to $70 million in February 2018. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has said that event prompted him to reignite talks with Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN Utility Systems, despite that discussions had begun in 2016 and never stopped. In April, Robideaux pulled the bond request from the state bond commission agenda the day it was set to be heard, effectively orphaning the rate increase.

Boudreaux says the money ought to finance bonds, given that was the principle justification for raising it.

“We’re in essence taxing ratepayers,” Boudreaux tells me.

OK. Give me my money back. Hold on to your receipt, ratepayer. It’s more complicated than that. LUS interim Director Jeff Stewart says that while plans for the generating plant were shelved, the system needed the funds to rightsize revenue for the water and wastewater systems, and to finance about $100 million in other capital improvements:

  • $48 million in electric system upgrades, including LED streetlights ($7M) and a new substation ($14M)
  • $41 million in wastewater, including expansion of a sewer plant ($26M)
  • $6.5 million in water system projects

These projects were included in the February resolution authorizing LUS to sell bonds. LUS faces flatlining electric revenue growth as customers use less energy and will spend millions to upgrade sewer capacity in Lafayette’s urban core and on an EPA mandated,10-year review and repair of the rest of its wastewater system. Stewart tells me reducing the rates is possible but requires a thorough review.

“The opportunity may exist, but we haven’t fully evaluated those options yet,” he says.  

What to watch for: How else the NextGEN affair impacts decision-making around LUS. If there’s a silver lining in the acrimony that erupted over the privatization scheme, it’s that LUS has taken center stage in civic conversation. Major changes are already in play. LUS is set to cleave off Fiber, and both systems will need new directors. NextGEN’s proposal introduced into the public lexicon plenty of new concepts around energy and raised awareness about the disruptions LUS faces going forward.

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IBM and top government consultant draft smart city roadmap for Lafayette

The gist: Big Blue and mega-consultant firm KPMG outlined a comprehensive smart city action plan for LCG over the past year, developing concepts like digital payments for public services and smart traffic sensors for more efficient traffic control.

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Smart cities are what again? It’s a catchall term for the use of innovation to make government more efficient and transparent. More often than not, it’s associated with advances in automation, data and the internet of things (IoT). Concepts can be as cutting edge as AV transit and as boring as fiber-connected traffic counters.

Around 70 initiatives were identified, according to LCG spokeswoman Cydra Wingerter, over the course of the past year. Wingerter shared a sampling of the results, which were discussed in part at a soft reveal during LCG’s PlanLafayette week in October:

  • Smart Fire Alarms deployed parishwide and connected via LUS Fiber to improve Lafayette Fire Department response times.
  • Digital Payment Network to accept remote credit card payments and platforms like Venmo and PayPal for public services.
  • Digital 311 to improve public service requests and provide real time data and collect public feedback.
  • Smart Traffic Improvements like predictive analytics, adaptive traffic controls to carve paths for emergency response vehicles and updated sensors for traffic volume. The I-49 Connector got a mention, too.
  • Disaster Preparedness Plan includes a companion mobile app for notification and e-learning modules for flood and hurricane prep education. This piggybacks on the city’s Bloomberg Challenge application. Lafayette was a finalist for the challenge but came up short.

I’ve asked for the full list of projects and a copy of the contract with IBM/KPMG, but have received no response from the administration.

Where do Cryptocurrency and Blockchain fit in? You probably aren’t asking this question, but you should. At the Opportunity Machine’s innovation conference in October, Crypteaux architect and Robideaux adviser Joe Castille mentioned that IBM/KPMG validated his public innovation ecosystem concept. There’s a lot to unpack here, but the broad strokes include funding public projects through yields from a cryptocurrency launch — Castille used the I-49 Connector as an example — and establishing an e-residency program to attract blockchain entrepreneurs, an idea that’s worked well in Estonia. Yes, Estonia.

Innovation is a key priority for the Robideaux administration. A Lafayette-based team pitched a freight hyperloop corridor among other transportation concepts at a major conference in Columbus, Ohio, and placed in the competition. Robideaux and mayoral assistant Kate Durio took part.

What to watch for: Whether Robideaux has the political capital after the LUS controversy to get anywhere with his ideas, particularly those that require the council to sign off. Robideaux recognized the challenge in remarks at that conference in Ohio:

So you can have this vision of all these really great things, but when you sit down with your council members and say, "We need to spend money on a smart city initiative," and let's just say it's $1 million. They're going to come back and say, "How about you spend it digging out that ditch that's in this neighborhood that's flooded three times?" That's the reality that we face.

Joel Robideaux,
via Smart Cities Dive

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Waitr goes public Friday. Technically, you can get in on that stock now.

The gist - If you want to buy stock in Waitr before it goes public, today is your last chance. Waitr is scheduled to complete its agreement for a business combination with Landcadia Holdings tomorrow and go public Nov. 16 on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the ticker WTRH.

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What’s Landcadia Holdings? Landcadia Holdings is a special purpose acquisition company formed two years ago by American billionaire Tilman Fertitta to raise $300 million through an IPO to invest in acquiring companies. Over the summer the company announced its intent to acquire Waitr for $308 million ($50 million in cash and $258 million in stock) and rebrand itself as Waitr Holdings.

How can I buy Waitr stock before it goes public? Simple: by buying stock in Landcadia Holdings, which is listed under the ticker LCA on the NASDAQ. While you’ll be buying stock in Landcadia Holdings this week, once the vote is approved by its stockholders at a special meeting tomorrow, Landcadia Holdings will become Waitr Holdings with Waitr as its subsidiary.

But should I want to buy stock in Waitr? We don’t provide investment tips at The Current, (you wouldn't want us to) but it's worth noting that Waitr is experiencing incredible growth. In the 3rd quarter alone of this year, it grossed $77.7 million in food sales, which represents a 230 percent year-over-year increase. It now serves 235 cities and 7,700 restaurant partners. Also, once this deal is finalized, Waitr will have about $200 million on its balance sheet to invest in additional growth. This growth could come in existing markets, expansion into new markets, or in considering acquiring competitors or complementary companies.

How big of a deal is this to Lafayette? Regardless of whether you decide to invest in Waitr, there’s no denying this is a potentially huge deal for Lafayette. Our market isn’t home to very many publicly traded companies of any sort, let alone those with the growth potential of Waitr. Ideally what will happen next is that there will be incredible demand for Waitr stock, which will increase the price of shares and thereby increase the wealth Waitr’s creating in our community. From there Waitr could leverage its capital infusion to continue its exceptional growth, so that it evolves from a company worth hundreds of millions to one worth billions. These kind of wins are crucial for a still sluggish local economy. — Geoff Daily

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What’s next after NextGEN

On Monday, NextGen withdrew their offer to manage LUS hours before the Council voted against considering any deal like it. So now what?

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Crucial council votes could quicken or prolong a resolution to the LUS private management affair 

The gist: Depending on a pair of council votes next week, NextGEN Utility Systems could walk away from Lafayette or find itself in a potentially lengthy open competition for the right to run LUS.

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NextGEN could ride on to the next town pending the result of a City-Parish Council resolution, authored by Councilman William Theriot, officially opposing “for now” the sale, lease or private management of LUS. While non-binding, the resolution would signal to NextGEN — and any other interested party, for that matter — that the current council isn’t interested in monetizing LUS. NextGEN Managing Director Jeff Baudier, a former Cleco executive who joined NextGEN in April of this year, says the firm is spending too much money to face the futility of a dead deal (Jim Bernhard told the council the company had already spent $1 million), should the council resolve to oppose private management.

“We can’t keep beating our head against the wall,” Baudier tells me. Despite mostly negative press, he says, the firm has received interest from beleaguered and indebted cities across the Southeast, where the company hopes to one day operate 50 utilities.

Meanwhile, NextGEN could face other bidders if Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux’s resolution calling for a request for proposals succeeds by vote of the LPUA next week. And those bidders, Baudier points out, would have a look at all of NextGEN’s cards.

“Now our competition can come in and copy our structure,” Baudier tells me, noting that the company’s public proposal and presentations expose NextGEN’s pricing. NextGEN, by way of parent private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners, has been in talks with the Robideaux administration since at least late 2016. Robideaux signed a non-disclosure agreement with BCP in April 2017 and supplied the company with LUS financial and operational information before the group’s formal due diligence study began in April 2018. Baudier says an NDA is a normal course of business for the firm.

Should the conversation continue? That’s the question at the heart of both resolutions. There’s virtually universal recognition now that NextGEN’s proposal is tainted by an early lack of transparency. Even Robideaux called for a reset and admitted that his unilateral approach was a “misstep.” But some argue that the administration’s failure to disclose the talks shouldn’t derail an important conversation about the future of LUS. Boudreaux believes the RFP process conducted by LUS’s contracted consultant — confusingly, NewGen Strategies and Solutions — can air it all out.

“I’m convinced this is going to give us the best snapshot of LUS we’ve ever had,” Boudreaux tells me. “But the process doesn’t guarantee anything happening … and this is at someone else’s cost, by the way.”

An RFP could be long and painful. Boudreaux pegged the end of January 2019 as the deadline for LCG to arrange its part of the RFP, a process that could be tricky in and of itself. Some estimate a fully vetted bidding process could take 18 months, lingering this issue into next year’s elections. Meanwhile, per a resolution passed earlier this month, LUS would remain without a permanent director until the private management pursuit is exhausted. That means progress at a crucial inflection point for LUS would remain stalled.

What to watch for. Whether and how NextGEN wins enough favor to get a second act. Early indications would stack the odds against the company. Both resolutions will be considered on Nov. 5, but Theriot’s outright opposition measure is the trump card; the full council will take it up after Boudreaux’s RFP proposal is heard at the LPUA, which meets before Monday’s council meeting. (Ordinarily on Tuesdays, the council meeting was rescheduled to accommodate Election Day.) NextGEN has a short window to show there’s enough public support for considering its bid. To that end, Baudier will hit the airwaves in the next few days. Conventional wisdom holds that the public is by and large opposed to the deal, but Baudier pushes back on that sentiment.

“There is no way that 160,000 residents know about every part of this deal,” he says.

Where’s the vision? NextGEN’s offer puts $324 million in financing on the table for use by a tax-averse community. Baudier says the firm’s management concept is commonplace internationally as a means of raising money without raising taxes. Communities tend to get behind these deals, he offers, when they see an identified use for the cash windfall. Lafayette has yet to put an idea forward, potentially tamping down enthusiasm. He says it’s not NextGEN’s role to provide one.

Speaking of votes. Baudier reaffirmed to me that the firm has no intention of structuring a deal to avoid a public vote.

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Why we need to fix the status quo for funding our courthouse and jail

On Nov. 6th we vote on whether to increase taxes for our parish courthouse and jail or instead to maintain the status quo. But the status quo is broken. Here’s why.

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What would Maurice Heymann do to build a brighter future for Lafayette?

Given that he fostered an industry that generates billions of dollars in GDP, it’d be great to ask him what he would do to get us out of the $10 billion hole our economy’s in.

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NextGEN’s offer by the numbers

What’s Jim Bernhard’s bid to run LUS really worth?

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Bernhard delivers $1.3 billion bid for LUS

Billed as a $4.1 billion deal, the offer is heavy on assumed indirect economic impacts.

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The dangers of Loren Scott’s economic optimism

While one economist may be projecting the end of Lafayette’s recession, more context is needed to understand the situation our economy is in

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Aug. 30, 2018, marked the fall of oil and (hopefully) the rise of tech in Lafayette

The day started with the news that LAGCOE was leaving for New Orleans and ended with a pitch competition that’s a symbol for a future where Lafayette is a hub for healthtech startups.

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