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Lafayette metro area shrinking for second straight year, according to latest census estimates

The gist: The five-parish metro area is estimated to have plateaued or shrunk in the last two years, despite modest growth in Lafayette Parish, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Since peaking at 490,941 residents in 2016, the metropolitan statistical area essentially flatlined. Annual estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2018 show a slight decrease in population to 489,364. Lafayette’s MSA includes Lafayette, Vermilion, Iberia, St. Mary and Acadia parishes. Businesses considering moving to Lafayette typically look at the regional workforce.

Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish added residents, growing 3% since 2014 to 242,782.  

The city of Lafayette shrank in 2017 estimates. Data that year showed continued growth in surrounding municipalities like Broussard and Youngsville, albeit slowing, and a slight dip in the city of Lafayette’s population, which shrank less than half a percentage point from the previous year. City-level data for 2018 has not been released.

Parish growth may be related to cannibalizing other areas in the region. When you factor in these other numbers, the data suggest that Lafayette Parish’s growth could be coming at the expense of surrounding areas. In other words, while areas like Youngsville and Broussard may be growing, a large part of that growth could be residents leaving areas harder struck by the recent economic downturn, which doesn’t necessarily help the overall health of the region.

A caveat. These are estimates, and they are sometimes revised. It’s not uncommon for the census bureau to change population figures in subsequent years. The next formal census is in 2020. There’s currently a national political battle over whether a citizenship question will appear on the form.

Why this matters. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, one of the best ways to grow an economy is to add people. Overall growth for the region is key, as it would indicate a robust economy driven by increased output, not shifting internal demographics. Put simply: over the long term, the parish can’t succeed if Youngsville and Broussard are growing while Lafayette’s MSA and the city of Lafayette itself are shrinking.

Must do, must see, must eat, must hear at Festival International 2019

The gist: Festival International is a sensory overload. Try to do too much, and you end up doing nothing at all. Here are our picks (mostly Christiaan’s) of what to do, see, eat and hear at the Cajun Coachella — if you only have the time or energy to choose one thing for each of the essential Festival urges.

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Holy S***, a grocery store is coming Downtown

The gist: Well, it’s a market. But it sells meat and produce and general merchandise, so it counts. Handy Stop Market & Café is slated to open on Jefferson Street this fall.

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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.

Internal LCG review finds Bruno loan deficient, unusual and likely in default

The Community Development Department’s monitoring review of the 2016 loan to Robideaux aide Marcus Bruno found it in likely default for lack of compliance with federal requirements and recommends the nonprofit board that awarded it either modify the loan agreement, call in the loan or pursue legal action.

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Elmhurst Park residents intervene in Charter suit, arguing it’s too late to challenge election

The gist: Several residents in a Lafayette neighborhood that would be left without representation by errors in the charter amendments voters approved in December asked the court on Thursday to dismiss a suit filed to overturn them. They argue the time to challenge the election is up.  

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“The other side in bad faith has found a toe-hold in a typo and is wreaking havoc,” says Kevin Blanchard of Fix the Charter PAC. The PAC is paying the court costs for the six residents of Elmhurst Park — Deborah Amy, Dennis Sullivan, Bruce Sawvel, Jane Sawvel, Harold Bernard Jr. and Daniel Gillane — to intervene.

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The discrepancies, discovered in December, have reignited political division over the council split, the most significant change to local government since Lafayette consolidated in the 1990s. A group opposed to the charter amendments filed suit to overturn the election earlier this month after the City-Parish Council voted to correct the errors by ordinance. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general, has joined the suit; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another vote — can correct the errors.

The portion of Elmhurst Park, precinct 74, circled on a map by the registrar of voters.

Elmhurst Park voted 76% in favor of the charter amendments. Several errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts — literally, words describing maps — would leave roughly 300 registered voters in the neighborhood between Downtown and UL’s campus without representation. Charter amendment opponents, joined by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, argue in the suit that the inadvertent disenfranchisement invalidates the election result.

“There were a group of voters who were going to be left out. The council fixed the problem,” Blanchard says of the reapportionment ordinance passed to correct the errors. “Why are we fighting that? Why are people suing to say you have to correct those errors a different way? It’s a hypertechnical, legally precarious argument.”

Errors aside, we know what was intended is a key argument the Elmhurst residents make. The council clearly meant for the legal descriptions to match the maps, the residents claim, when the final version of the maps were adopted to send to voters. According to long-standing legal practice, the pleading argues, the court can order the errors disregarded in favor of the council’s intent, thereby dispensing of the need for an ordinance or a new amendment to resolve the problem. In other words, they’re saying they voted to create a new city council and are asking the court to fix it.

Read the intervention petition here. And the exception here.

Time’s up, let’s move on is the ultimate argument made here. The intervening residents say that plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, a council candidate and avowed opponent of the charter fix, should have challenged the result of the election by Jan. 17, within 30 days after the election results were promulgated (certified, essentially). Kishbaugh’s action was brought against Lafayette Consolidated Government April 5, or 78 days after the Dec. 18 promulgation. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general’s office, intervened later.

City-Parish attorneys have also challenged the timeliness of Kishbaugh’s suit in an exception filed Thursday. Read LCG’s exception here.

What to watch for: April 29, when the court will hear motions. A bench trial is scheduled for May 8, but the court could dismiss the suit at the April hearing, if it agrees with LCG’s legal team. The clock is ticking on getting a fix firmly in place to allow council elections to go forward this fall. Candidates have begun campaigning for city and parish council seats, yet the possibility that elections would be postponed or the council split overturned remains. Should the court side with Kishbaugh and throw out the election result, current council members would keep their seats until new elections can be called, likely 2020.

Lafayette Travel headed Downtown. Thruway Visitors center to remain ‘until the bulldozers come’ on I-49

The gist: Lafayette’s tourism bureau will move its administrative offices Downtown from its current offices on the Evangeline Thruway. The visitors center on site will remain until it’s forced to make way for the I-49 Connector.

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Lafayette Travel will be on Lafayette Street by August. Renovations on the new space, next door to the Alexandre Mouton House, are expected to cost just over $900,000. Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission CEO Ben Berthelot says the new, larger facility can accommodate the commission’s expanded staff. A location Downtown puts the travel bureau where most visitors go first, the city’s central business district. LCVC was also courted to Moncus Park and the University Avenue corridor, but the space next to one of the city’s signature museums made too much sense to pass up, Berthelot says.

An eventual move has been in the works for more than a decade, Berthelot tells me. His predecessor established a reserve to relocate, knowing the I-49 Connector would one day require the facility to leave. By agreement with the state, the structures that currently house LCVC are temporary buildings, able to be moved to accommodate the Connector, a project that’s been in the works haltingly since the early 1990s.

“We can’t continue to invest there when we might get moved by an interstate,” he says, explaining why they couldn’t justify expanding office space at the current location.

The move took heat from Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux who highlighted the exit as yet another example of disinvestment of public resources on Lafayette’s northside. “A million dollar investment into [Downtown] and a future abandonment of North Lafayette period,” he wrote on Facebook. LCVC’s departure follows the devastating closure of the Northside Walmart last month. Boudreaux has also begun stumping for a new public library east of I-49, using the issue to emphasize enduring disparities on either side of the Thruway.

Berthelot insists LCVC will stay until the Connector forces his organization out and that the bureau will continue to maintain the property and the median across from the recently closed Walmart. He tells me the visitors center is committed to the north gateway “until the bulldozers come.”

Why this matters. The northside’s decline has been long and painful. With little movement to reverse a troubling trend, even a relatively small departure such as LCVC’s salts the wound. Investment of public resources in Downtown Lafayette is often viewed by northside representatives as coming at the expense of providing opportunity to their long-suffering neighborhoods.

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.

Attorney Josh Guillory, a former congressional candidate, enters the race for mayor-president

The gist: And now there are two. Former LCG Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar has at least one challenger, attorney and former congressional candidate Josh Guillory.

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“I am running for mayor-president of Lafayette,” Guillory said on KPEL Wednesday morning (though as of late Wednesday afternoon he’d not yet changed his “I’m considering running” Facebook post from Monday to “I’m running”). Guillory has been contemplating a run since at least early December, when I first contacted him, but sources say he also was eyeing a couple of judicial races in recent weeks. Attempts to reach Guillory this week were unsuccessful.

First-term Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who made a surprise announcement Friday morning that he won’t seek re-election, is an independent-turned-Republican. Alm-LaBar has no party affiliation, and Guillory is a Republican. Guillory was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins in October, running third behind another political newcomer, Democrat Mimi Methvin. Higgins was easily re-elected in November.  

More to come? Most eyes seem to be turning to Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, another Republican. Ritter, who’s also been mulling an m-p run since late last year, has reportedly been making the rounds to potential financial supporters. “I’m honored that I was just re-elected without opposition and really proud of the work we’re doing in Youngsville,” Ritter told me in a mid-November interview. “I am watching what’s going on there. It has been difficult to sit idle and watch the challenges in parish government. … It’s my opinion that we certainly have more that should unite Lafayette Parish than what divides us,” he added. “It’s a leadership issue.” The interview was conducted just weeks after a public battle between Ritter and Robideaux over drainage problems in Youngsville was ultimately worked out in Youngsville’s favor. It was clear from the interview that Ritter hoped Robideaux would have opposition. Ritter did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

What to watch for: The money. Who can raise it. Alm-LaBar has the early advantage having been the only candidate to oppose Robideaux at the time of his bowing out. She announced a $150,000 haul over the weekend, but some Republican money will start flowing to Guillory and any other Rs who might enter the race. Robideaux and Dee Stanley were neck and neck in fundraising leading up to the 2015 primary, though Robideaux had significantly more cash on hand (mainly from leftover legislative race funds) and was able to outmatch Stanley in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 24 election. Campaign finance reports show Robideaux raised $71,000 in the home stretch to Stanley’s $40,000 — $22,000 of which was a loan to himself.

Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar gave seed money to The Current in 2018.

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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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Robideaux bows out of re-election bid in sudden announcement

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will not seek re-election, he announced in a press conference Friday morning. Over the past year, his administration has battled a string of controversies, leading some political observers to view him as a weakened incumbent.

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It’s not clear what spurred the decision. He did not take questions from the press, hurrying out of his conference room at city hall after reading from a prepared statement. Robideaux has said casually in public appearances for months that he intended to run, treating the prospect as a given. Since the beginning of the year, he’s ramped up his social media presence, using more routine posts to raise his visibility in a campaign year. The Advocate reported in February that he had little money raised for a run, prompting questions about his vulnerability. Robideaux rebutted that story on his Facebook page.

“Lafayette is in the best financial position it’s ever been,” because of his administration’s fiscal policies, he said at the conference, reading solemnly from typed remarks. He cited the pending sale of the old federal courthouse and recent economic gains, along with progress at the parish no-kill animal shelter and revitalizing the University Avenue corridor — both campaign promises — as key accomplishments. “Our future is very exciting. I have done what I was elected to do.”

Robideaux had drawn a challenger for the upcoming race, a somewhat unusual occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette. Carlee Alm-LaBar, who served as planning director under Robideaux, announced a bid last month. Rumors of other candidates yet to enter are swirling around political circles, but no others have materialized.

Disclosure: Alm-LaBar provided some seed money The Current in 2018.

The mayor-president has faced controversies, some unresolved, that have accumulated over the past 18 months. Most recently, federal authorities have begun investigating accusations of impropriety surrounding Marcus Bruno, a mayoral aide, linked to a federally backed loan Bruno received through a nonprofit that provides financing to small businesses. Last year, Robideaux faced public uproar for courting a contract to privatize management of LUS, a pursuit that transpired out of public view for almost two years. The affair began a marked deterioration in his relationship with the City-Parish Council; the mistrust appears to have only worsened in recent months.  

An hour earlier, Robideaux spoke with interested developers on site at the Buchanan Garage Downtown. He appeared very much engaged in the redevelopment project, taking some pointed questions from developer Tim Supple and promoting the site as an opportunity to leverage Downtown development to reap economic benefit for the parish as a whole.

What to watch for: Who steps into the race and how Robideaux finishes out his only term. It’s not likely that Alm-LaBar will run unopposed. Robideaux’s appearance at the Buchanan Garage arguably indicates he intends to shepherd through initiatives he cares about.

Old federal courthouse developers extended inspection period but say project is still on time

The gist: The team redeveloping Downtown’s old federal courthouse requested an extension on the 60-day due diligence period back in February and have yet to file for a building permit. Nevertheless, they maintain the project is on schedule to start construction in June.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux successfully navigated a sale of the long-vacant building through the council to a private development team for $1.4 million, a feat that had eluded proponents for more than a decade. As contracted, the project would place 68 housing units and 25,000 square feet of new commercial space on a prominent street corner. It represents an important domino in toppling the district’s residential development quagmire. Skepticism has clouded the project since the beginning, strung along by a lack of new information.

Everything is moving along smoothly,” Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats told the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, noting the purchase of the old federal courthouse and adjoining properties will close in May. Oats provided the status update at Councilman Jay Castille’s request, and has served as the project’s default spokesman since last year. Castille has questioned the aggressive timeline set by the administration and the experience of the Place de Lafayette project’s team led by financier E.J. Krampe III and contractor Jim Poche.

Construction activity must begin by July 1 or the developers will face a $25,000 monthly fine, according to the contract. The inspection extension does not move the start date or the substantial completion date of December 31, 2020, which still backstop the project timeline.

The timeline is doable but leaves little room for error. For comparison, Developer Stephen Ortego tells me permitting on his Vermilion Lofts mixed use development Downtown took six months to complete. Even quick turnarounds on permits are measured in weeks or often months. “It moves as fast as you push it,” he says. Ortego was part of a team that pitched unsuccessfully for the old federal courthouse.

Variances could be the real hurdle. Going through the Board of Zoning Adjustment can be a lengthy process, especially if there’s any back and forth on variances requested. Ortego says the process can take three months, but that developers can pursue a building permit simultaneously.

“I’m assuming from the drawings they will have to go BOZA,” Ortego says, referring to the rendering posted during the Robideaux Report last month. As depicted, for instance, it appears some newly constructed buildings on the site could be set too far back from the sidewalk under Downtown’s development codes, he says, requiring a variance. It’s unclear if the drawing represents a final concept. Calls to Krampe, Poche and project architect Dyke Nelson were not returned.

A rendering of the Place de Lafayette project tweeted by the mayor-president and unveiled at the Robideaux Report last month.

What’s your definition of commencement? According to their contract with LCG, the developers at minimum would need to put up construction fencing with contractor signage, begin interior demolition and roll trailers and other equipment on site. It’s possible that work could be accomplished without a building permit issued, I’m told by sources with development experience. Whether it would pass a skeptical council’s smell test is another question.

Why this matters: The old federal courthouse is a big deal for Downtowners and the mayor-president, who has held the project up as a signature win for his administration. Should something go sideways, it could let air out of recent Downtown enthusiasm and devalue an important accomplishment for the mayor-president’s re-election bid.