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Community Agenda 2019

Business + Innovation

Lafayette retail sales have best start to the year ever for almost everyone

The gist: Retail sales in February point to what may be the strongest first quarter in parish history, pending data from March. With $952 million in combined sales between January and February, up from $889 million last year, the first two months of 2019 topped the previous all-time high of $950 million in 2015.

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Some cities aren’t recovering because they never stopped growing. Retail sales in Carencro, Scott and Youngsville keep rising, seemingly unaffected by the area’s economic downturn. Youngsville in particular saw January/February retail sales almost double from $28 million in 2014 — when the price of oil began to tank — to $55 million in 2018, while Carencro saw more modest growth from $29 million to $40 million and Scott grew from $27 million to $40 million.

The cities that did falter are making up lost ground. Retail sales in the city of Lafayette peaked at $676 million in January-February 2015 and haven’t fully recovered. Over those same months this year, sales totaled $662 million, an uptick from the $633 million posted in 2018. Broussard is still down from its peak of $96 million in January/February 2014 to $87 million this year, though that’s up from $78 million last year.

Unincorporated Lafayette is still climbing out of a deep hole. Retail sales in unincorporated Lafayette hit $70 million this January/February. While that’s up significantly from $58 million last year, it’s also down significantly from the peak of $93 million in 2014.

Some categories of retailers in the city of Lafayette are on the decline year-over-year. For example, machine shops fell from $1.9 million in January/February of 2018 to $1.4 million over the same timespan in 2019. And that’s a continuation of a trend, as machine shop sales peaked in 2014 at $4.2 million.  

But some categories of retailers in the city of Lafayette are on the rise year-over-year. For example, oilwell equipment sales rose from $8 million to $8.8 million, though any optimism should be tempered by the fact that this is still down from the peak in 2015 of $31 million.

These retail sales numbers are good news, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because the parish’s retail sales are up in January and February doesn’t mean a great year is guaranteed. Improving sales is one indicator and doesn’t necessarily mean the economy is turning around, particularly when set against historic losses, stagnant wages and a sluggish job market.

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LUS exploring EV infrastructure

The gist: LUS is in the early stages of pursuing a pilot program to add electric vehicle charging stations to its portfolio and buy electric forklifts for its warehouse.

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If funded, the pilot could put chargers at the Target shopping center on Louisiana Avenue  but isn’t limited to that location. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says work is very much preliminary and not related to surveys underway for a Tesla supercharger at the same site. LUS is also researching EV policies and approaches in major regional markets to write a local one.

LUS applied for funding through Louisiana’s allotment of VW’s settlement program, which is paying billions in atonement money for the German automaker’s use of software to cheat emission standards tests on its diesel fleet. As part of its settlement with the EPA, VW established a $2.9 billion trust to pay for programs that reduce diesel emissions. Louisiana received around $20 million from the trust. It’s that pot of money LUS is after for the pilot.  

This is the second time LUS applied for the VW money. The utility’s first attempt at funding through the trust wasn’t successful. A second round was opened this year, according to Stewart, and last week LUS turned its application, which asks for more than $150,000 in grants.

LUS is at the beginning stages of a major power planning process called an integrated resource plan. Stewart says LUS has shortlisted four consultants to assist LUS on the IRP and will bring those candidates in for staff presentations in the coming weeks. He’s hoping to have a contract in place by June. A big part of the IRP is projecting the future of power demand, i.e. how much electricity the city will need, and how to meet the demand. Stewart has positioned this iteration of the process to be more public than previous go-rounds, saying in recent interviews that he wants the public to help create a vision for the future of the electric utility.

Meanwhile, automakers are investing billions in EV fleets. Lafayette has been criticized for lagging behind national (and even regional) adoption of EV infrastructure. Industry movement is now difficult to ignore. VW itself plans to spend $80 billion over the next five years developing EVs and outfitting them with batteries, according to The Economist, ultimately producing 20 million electric cars in the next decade.

Why this matters. EVs are only one disruption the utility industry faces. Bernhard Capital Partners criticized LUS’s lack of innovation and flexibility when the private equity firm pursued purchasing the right to manage the utility. LUS has been more proactive in the last couple of years exploring renewable energy and other disruptive technologies, contracting wind power from the midwest last year, but nevertheless has been cautious to dive into a fast-moving space.

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Robideaux’s ‘mission accomplished’ optimism obscures a troubling reality

The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.

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VISION 2020: Let’s prove our faith in Downtown by investing in it

My dad is a preacher. A good one. His sermons, whether delivered from the pulpit, at home or as a prelude to my being grounded, taught me a lot about life. And because we went to church whenever the lights were on — and because I’ve been grounded often and for a variety of reasons that seemed like good ideas […]

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When up is down in Lafayette’s retail sector

Lafayette’s retail sales are on the rise after a string of bad years. But we still have a long way to go.

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Crypteaux absent, Opportunity Zones top of mind for second innovation trust meeting

The gist: Still in its infancy, the Lafayette Public Innovation Alliance, created by the mayor-president to kickstart Lafayette’s pivot to technology, is working to find its way. Opportunity Zones could figure prominently in the trust’s work.

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Get caught up, quickly: LPIA is a public trust created by M-P Joel Robideaux and voted into existence by the City-Parish Council last summer to nurture the growth of software development and innovation in Lafayette Parish. It had its first meeting in January and held its second last month. The mayor-president has embraced the technology sector as an economic driver for the region. The LPIA is his vehicle for pursuing these aspirations.

LPIA aims to drive adoption and use of federal Opportunity Zones. Opportunity Zones are part of a new federal tax incentive program that provides preferential capital gains tax treatment to money invested in “Opportunity Funds” that invest in these zones. Lafayette’s zones include the Oil Center, Downtown and portions of the University Avenue corridor. It’s not clear yet what specific role LPIA will take in achieving the goal, but at a minimum Robideaux wants the organization to be a champion for these efforts.

Lafayette (sort of) has an innovation district now. While there’s been no formal proclamation, Robideaux has positioned LPIA to create an innovation district that overlays those opportunity zones. An innovation district is an urban development strategy to regenerate underperforming areas to be more desirable to innovation companies and workers. The thinking here is to stack incentives and programming by adding an innovation district over the same footprint. It’s not clear yet what this designation actually changes other than reinforcing the intent of Robideaux’s focus on catalyzing growth in these areas through technology.

No discussion of Crypteaux. Since its inception, the LPIA has been connected to Crypteaux, the mayor-president’s pitch to create a municipal cryptocurrency for Lafayette and transform our community into a living lab for blockchain technologies. Crypteaux figured heavily into the LPIA’s first meeting agenda, which included an at-length discussion of using cryptocurrency as an investment vehicle of sorts to fund LPIA ambitions. Notably, Crypteaux was not part of the March meeting’s agenda.

No plans for staffing, yet. There was at one time talk of a potential agreement with UL (Ramesh Kolluru, UL’s VP of Research, sits on the LPIA) to provide staffing until LPIA could pay for its own. But members decided to postpone discussing a staffing plan until funding is secured.

Starting work on a mission. One major discussion item was working to define LPIA’s mission in a way that helps the public really understand what the organization does. LPIA is eyeing an event this fall to tie together a variety of other innovation and technology-centric events like the Opportunity Machine’s Innovation Conference and CajunCodeFest.

Why this matters? Lafayette has to replace the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost in its economy since 2014. Technology and software businesses offer some of the greatest potential to do that. Given that LPIA has set out to help attract and grow those businesses, there’s a lot riding on the success of this venture.

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LED is helping CGI tempt Baton Rouge talent to Lafayette

The gist: On Saturday, March 30, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Louisiana Economic Development is hosting a career fair in Baton Rouge to help CGI fill the 400 new jobs the consulting giant is creating in Lafayette.

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Those rosy unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story

An improving unemployment rate offers an incomplete picture. Fewer people aren’t unemployed. Fewer people are working.

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LCG working to add new vehicles for Downtown/UL transit loop pilot

The gist: Downtown and UL are only a mile away from each other but worlds apart. LCG has been testing a transit route to connect them and is now looking for dollars to buy vehicles to run it.

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All about them millennials. The theory behind the loop is that Downtown needs youth to thrive, and UL’s got youth to give. At one time, we called youth “millennials.” I guess at this point it should be Generation Z, right? I’m a millennial, technically, and I’m 34. Anyway, here’s the m-p:

“In order for us to ultimately have a thriving Downtown environment, we need a lot of things to happen,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux told me back in 2017, when the idea first materialized publicly. “A residential component. We need all of those things. But you also want the millennial connection to Downtown that doesn’t currently exist, except very late at night on the weekends. This is an easy first step to the connection between the millennials and the Downtown environment.”

Buses already in the Lafayette Transit System fleet have been used in a test route. Planning Director Danielle Breaux says a city bus isn’t quite the ideal fit, suggesting a shuttle is probably the right size for the ridership and route of narrow urban streets. Robideaux said in 2017 that an electric vehicle was a possibility, arguing something small and innovative may appeal to student riders. The “proof of concept” provided by the LTS route, Breaux says, allows LCG to avoid spending money on a more extensive study and direct the dollars to buying vehicles.

Pilot programs in transportation such as this one not only help to take unnecessary car trips off of the road, but also improve connectivity, transportation options, and lower cost for citizens, students and visitors to better access jobs, services, and education,” Breaux tells me in an email.

Bus transfer. Robideaux is pursuing dormant transportation dollars to buy whatever vehicle(s) get used. The administration put in a request to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the agency in charge of federal transportation dollars in the Acadiana region, to move just under $380,000 from funds originally set aside to pay for a roundabout and a study on West Congress Street. The budget and scope of the project are unclear. Breaux says LCG will have more info on the project available in mid-April, when the transfer applications are turned into the MPO.

What to watch for: Whether the transfer request gets OK’d when the MPO votes in May and July. Robideaux took some heat for other MPO transfer requests on the slate, most pointedly from Downtown representatives and Councilman Bruce Conque on a move to zero out a $6.8 million streetscape project in Downtown to pay for improvements on the University Avenue corridor, a priority project for the mayor-president. Robideaux and four council members, including Conque, have committee seats on the MPO, along with officials from other parishes in the MPO’s footprint.

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Waitr hit with second federal wage suit

The gist: This is the second collective action suit against Waitr filed by delivery drivers alleging the Lafayette-based food delivery platform doesn’t pay minimum wage.

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New Orleans driver Autumn Montgomery says she earned $1.97/ hour when driving expenses were factored in. Her federal complaint claims she drove 279 miles on less than 30 hours of work each week. Using the IRS benchmark of 54.5 cents per mile, it cost her an average $5.28 per hour to drive for Watir. Montgomery retained Lafayette attorney Chris Zaunbrecher to sue, filing a collective action claim in Louisiana’s Eastern District on March 8. The suit also brings state claims.

Another Lafayette-based attorney, Kevin Duck, is trawling to attract drivers for a suit.  

Montgomery’s claims mirror those filed by two drivers in February. The crux is that Waitr drivers are paid $5 or $6 an hour plus tips but aren’t reimbursed mileage. Waitr drivers have big delivery zones in secondary markets, so when the pay dips and the drives are long, their earnings drop below minimum wage, a violation of federal law. Or as Gizmodo put it. “Waitr delivery drivers say they’re being screwed, too.”

“Some of these people are essentially paying Waitr to work for them,” said Carter Hastings, one of the attorneys representing Jualeia Halley and Heather Montgomery in the February suit. “But since it’s wear and tear, they don’t typically realize it.”

At issue is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour and requires employers to pay workers “free and clear” of their costs of working. This is also called the “kickback” rule.

Gig economy companies like Waitr are targeted for labor violations all the time, although Waitr’s case is somewhat unique. Virtually all of Waitr’s drivers are W2 employees, not contractors, which exposes the company to the kickback rule. Its competitors, like GrubHub and DoorDash, have more commonly been sued for “misclassification,” essentially, treating independent contractors like employees. Both of these suits make misclassificaiton charges against Waitr, also.

Domino’s franchises have paid out millions on kickback violations. A rash of cases against Domino’s have been filed. Around 100 drivers in Cincinnati were awarded $1 million last year.

Collective action means opt in. That tends to limit the number of claims that would affect Waitr, should the suits go forward. Waitr employs approximately 8,000 active drivers, but the prevailing suit would capture former drivers as far back as 2016, too. The benchmark opt-in average is around 20 percent of a class, but the numbers vary wildly by industry or employer. Some 40 drivers in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama have opted into the Halley suit, many from Lafayette.

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Federal suit alleges Waitr drivers aren’t making minimum wage

Two Waitr drivers say the fast-growing food delivery app company paid them and potentially thousands of other drivers less than minimum wage in a collective action suit.

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What happens when a Walmart dies?

Walmart’s decision shines a light on serious issues with no easy answers.

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