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.
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.
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.
Why is America so badly governed? Blaming voters or politicians is the wrong answer. It’s how we vote.
A national retail operator with a reputation for buying troubled malls and investing little in them bought Acadiana Mall in mid-January.
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.
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.
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.
The gist: Turns out those e-scooters aren’t exactly street legal, according to state law, at least not clearly. Bird and Lime agreed to take the scooters off the streets until legislation can clear a legal pathway for them to continue service.
When a scooter is a motorcycle: Ambiguities in state law may inadvertently define the electric scooters as a motorized vehicle and thus regulate them like rascals, mopeds, motorcycles. Viewed that way in the eyes of the law, the scooters may be prohibited from sidewalks (Bird and Lime say the scooters shouldn’t be on sidewalks, anyway) or from riding the streets without registration and titling. The state definitions predate the shared mobility rage, a phenomenon that took cities by storm in the last couple of years with free-standing, app-enabled bikes and scooters. In other words, it’s more or less an accident of history that Bird and Lime may run afoul of statutes like this one from 2005.
What if we call them something else? In an email sent to Mayor-President Joel Robideaux over the weekend, Lime representatives suggested calling the scooters “motorized novelty vehicles” as a workaround. The loophole accommodates Segways, for instance. The semantic solution was apparently considered in New Orleans before city officials ultimately decided — “for political (not policy) reasons,” according to Lime reps in the email exchange — not to let the companies operate there. Scooter companies first encountered the state issue in approaching New Orleans and have worked to find a state-level solution since.
“Simply using a newly defined name falls short of a workable solution on our end and does not change the fact that current State law would still consider them a vehicle which cannot be operated on sidewalks or any street without the required equipment, ” Robideaux replied in an email to Lime reps.
Robideaux raised the legal issue two weeks ago in remarks to the City-Parish Council, suggesting the administration has been grappling with what it now views is a cut and dry prohibition. Robideaux has taken a cautious but friendly posture to the scooter companies since they arrived in early December, working to develop a policy framework that would allow them to stay long term. State law, however, trumps local law. In other words, Lafayette can’t be more lenient than the state in regulating the scooters. It’s unclear how long the administration, which has not responded to a request for comment, has been aware of the statute. UL threatened to impound scooters left on campus back in December, shortly after the fleets landed. Students were told not to ride on sidewalks and were ordered to park them in bike racks.
Please leave before we kick you out. In letters delivered to Bird and Lime, Robideaux asked the companies to “stand down” voluntarily rather than face cease and desist orders. The companies will have to pull approximately 100 or more scooters scattered around the city but mostly clustered around the urban core. Some cities have taken to impounding the scooters when Bird, Lime and other operators have been slow to leave when asked. The companies have tended to pounce on new markets unannounced, part and parcel of a disruption ethos among Silicon Valley outfits, and have faced backlash from some communities and welcome in others. That strategy seems to be changing as the element of surprise has dissipated. Now rideshare companies are commonly working with municipalities to design agreements ahead of deploying the scooter fleets.
What to watch for: If this is truly a pause or something more final. Legislation, at its earliest, would be available in late spring. Locals have had a love-hate relationship with the devices. Some see them as a nuisance, even a safety hazard, taking issue with teenagers zooming on Downtown sidewalks, in clear violation of Bird’s and Lime’s own user instructions. Others view them as a useful mobility tool able to provide quick and convenient access for short trips, addressing a major cause of traffic in urbanized areas. LCG has made clear its intent to find a way to keep the scooters here. But it’s an election year, and public opinion on the scooters has hardly been uniform.
Mayor-President Robideaux wants to rededicate $18 million from the library’s fund balance to pave roads and clean coulees, but there are hidden costs that must be accounted for.
At a job fair tomorrow at South Louisiana Community College IBM will try to recruit people to move from Lafayette to Baton Rouge with the help with LED.
The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to move $18 million in library funds to roads and drainage projects. Councilman Bruce Conque, however, offered a compromise in a press release this morning, suggesting Robideaux take $10 million, leaving $16 million in the library’s fund balance after ongoing projects are complete.
Conque argues Robideaux’s proposal leaves the library without much wiggle room given it lost $3.2 million in annual revenue when one of its three millages failed last year. Revenues will dip from $12 million to under $9 million when the millage rolls off this year. Should library expenses remain at the current level, around $12.8 million annually, it will start running a deficit in the next fiscal year.
“We can part with some of it,” Andrew Duhon, vice president of the library board of control, tells me. “The amount the mayor-president wants is inappropriate.” Conque said in the press release that library leadership is on board with his counter-offer. The council must approve putting the rededication measure before voters.
Let’s see what happens in 2022. That’s the essence of Conque’s compromise. A $4.5 million property tax renewal is on the block that year. There was a time when library taxes were considered untouchable; now it’s hardly a given that voters will support the remaining millages. Should the millage fail, the library could be set up for long-term hardship, the councilman says. Conque is concerned the $8 million fund balance that would remain if Robideaux’s proposal is approved by voters is insufficient to cover the costs of planned expansions, at the Clifton Chenier Center and the North Regional Library, and lost revenue.
“Is that the best use of the money, to hang onto it for whenever we need to do those expansions?” Robideaux asked in a report in The Daily Advertiser. “Or is it more important to look at what else we can do with that money?”
“This is not something we dreamed up yesterday,” Duhon says of the expansion plans, saying Robideaux never talked with library leadership before he announced the idea. “These things should be discussed,” he tells me.
Where will the money go? That’s still unclear. Robideaux told The Advertiser he’ll announce the projects before the voters go to the polls. LCG recently took an $18 million cash advance from general fund dollars on a $30 million bond package to pay for street and drainage projects.
What to watch for: Whether other council members sign on to Conque’s compromise, which will be offered as an amendment to Robideaux’s resolution on Tuesday. The council will vote then to send the proposition to voters in May. Councilmen Kevin Naquin, Jared Bellard and William Theriot have co-sponsored Robideaux’s resolution to rededicate $18 million.
The gist: Jobs of the future require degrees or certifications, but Acadiana’s workforce isn’t educated enough, according to business leaders. At a summit last week, One Acadiana launched 55 by 25, a community-wide effort to boost the number of workers holding post-secondary certificates or diplomas to 55 percent of the population by 2025.
About 40 percent of the working age population in Acadiana has a degree or certificate. The region ranks fifth in the state. Louisiana ranks 48th in the nation. By 2025 regional attainment is projected to rise organically to 44 percent, meaning there’s an 11-point gap the initiative aims to close. That’s about 44,000 people to credential.
“We’re going to wage war on allowing our citizens to be uneducated,” says Dr. Natalie Harder, chancellor of South Louisiana Community College, a speaker at the summit.
It ends with diplomas but starts with childhood. The initiative aims to improve readiness for kindergarten. Louisiana lags in early childhood education, a key indicator of post-secondary success. Harder says there’s low-hanging fruit too: adults who have left college degrees incomplete but have enough credits to get an associate’s degree.
Lafayette’s already on track; it’s the rest of Acadiana that’s lagging. When you combine college degrees, associate’s degrees, and certifications, Lafayette Parish’s workforce is already at 52 percent. Given a projected organic increase of 5-6 percent across Acadiana, that means Lafayette’s on track already. But the rest of the parish is much further behind, bringing the region’s average down to only at about 40 percent. Lafayette still has a lot to gain, because when employers consider moving here, they look at the quality of the workforce across the region.
The state announced a goal of 60 percent by 2030. Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, commissioner of higher education for the Louisiana Board of Regents and the summit’s keynote speaker, announced that state goal in her remarks.
“Let’s all just agree that a smarter workforce is better,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s VP for economic development. Companies have increasingly emphasized workforce education in site selection, meaning as Acadiana fails to educate, it fails to compete for more jobs. Still, there’s a growing recognition that, site selectors be damned, education is intrinsically important, even when it’s not linked to employer recruitment.
The gist: Gannett, the publicly traded company that publishes USA Today and The Daily Advertiser, is the target of a buyout by a hedge fund-backed firm known to gut newsrooms. The Advertiser’s faced layoffs in recent years, and the buyout could lead to more.
Digital First Media has offered $1.3 billion in what amounts to a hostile takeover, according to some national reports. Digital First is primarily owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known to cut costs on troubled assets. Digital First owns 7.5 percent of Gannett already and has made previous offers to acquire the company.
What to cut when there’s nothing left? Denver Post journalists revolted when Digital First took over the Colorado paper in 2018 and cut 30 newsroom staffers. In Lafayette, there’s a dark upside: There may not be much meat on The Advertiser’s bone for Digital First to cut. (In fact, it appears that Digital First’s cost-cutting assumptions could be flawed, according to USA Today.) The Advertiser took it on the chin in 2016 when a few reporters were laid off as part of a 2 percent workforce purge at Gannett properties nationwide. Gannett owns five Louisiana papers, some of which have reduced service to only a few days week.
The Advertiser’s executive editor took early retirement. James Flachsenhaar, a 20-year company man, announced his departure, effective Feb. 1. (Flachsenhaar declined to comment for this story.) The company has pivoted sales messaging to hammer the paper’s value as a community resource, asking customers to buy subscriptions to support the paper’s work. That’s a common approach (one The Current uses, too) as newspapers have struggled to find financial footing on shrinking revenue. The number of working journalists in U.S. has declined about 45 percent since 2004.
“Guess I have to kick ass for whatever time I have left,” veteran Advertiser reporter Claire Taylor wrote in a Facebook post sharing the potential buyout news.
Local journalism in Lafayette is in trouble. It’s unclear whether the buyout will go through or, if it does, whether The Advertiser will suffer the same fate as other Digital First properties. Some analysts believe Gannett will decline the offer. Still, the local media buzz is not positive. But what this really shows is how thin the local reporting ranks are. Lafayette has no mainstream news outlets owned locally. The fate of local information is in precarious hands.
The gist: Since taking office, Robideaux has flirted with smart city initiatives and floated ambitious tech concepts like municipal cryptocurrency. Now, at the end of his first term, he’s seeking a permanent IT director who can help implement his vision.
Robideaux is looking for a visionary: The job description posted last week describes an IT director who would be heavily involved in updating the department, a $9.7 million division that’s primarily charged with tech support services across consolidated government. The expanded role would include a hand in the administration’s smart city programs. Last year, the administration spent $150,000 to develop a smart city roadmap with IBM and mega-consultant KPMG that includes projects like making Lafayette a Smart City test bed, enhancing cyber security, implementing digital payments for government services and Crypteaux. The job posting says the new director would play an “integral role” in the roadmap. You can see the full roadmap here.
“It’s definitely fair to say the position of the director is evolving into one of a visionary and not just a person with a strong tech knowledge base and background,” Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me.
LCG’s strategic roadmap envisions more tech personnel. The Smart City roadmap contemplates adding a chief technology officer, a chief data and analytics officer and a chief information security officer. Positions like these do exist in other city governments. But, to be clear, the roadmap is largely provisional. It doesn’t necessarily describe concrete plans, but it offers a glimpse of what the administration has in mind — a more tech-savvy consolidated government.
Finding top talent in an election year could be tough, LCG’s civil service director tells me. Whoever would come into that position would face at least some political insecurity and the possibility that a new boss could kick him or her to the curb, particularly if a new administration doesn’t share Robideaux’s enthusiasm for big data in local government. This is an issue Robideaux faces in filling three other positions in 2019 — directors for LUS, LUS Fiber and planning — all while he runs for re-election.
“The complication is, it’s an election year,” Civil Service Director Adam Marcantel tells me. “Finding someone to run LUS for three months could be difficult. He may find that with IS&T, too.”
Robideaux has typically been slow to fill new positions. Current interim IS&T Director Michelle Rue has served in a temporary capacity for 10 months. Marcantel says he approached the administration in early fall last year to urge action. Caught up in the NextGEN/LUS flurry, the administration asked to revisit posting qualifications for a new director after the holidays. The administration posted the job last week.
What to watch for: Whether Robideaux ultimately fills all four open positions this year, and what talent he’s able to court. Wingerter herself was a late-term appointment in Joey Durel’s administration, she tells me, pushing back on the idea that an election year complicates the search. Technically, there’s nothing other than political pressure forcing Robideaux to make moves on these positions now. Director positions are not subject to civil service rules when it comes to vacancy, Marcantel says.