Lafayette’s conservative m-p on a range of topics, controversies and issues on the horizon.
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.
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.
The gist: More than a dozen Evangeline neighborhood revitalization projects, developed in response to construction of the I-49 Connector, were approved for funding, a small but key step in reinvestment efforts.
Get caught up, quickly: The projects are part of a plan developed by the Evangeline Corridor Initiative, an organization launched to address disinvestment in the neighborhoods the Connector is expected to impact. The ECI effort, housed within Lafayette Consolidated Government, was funded by a federal TIGER grant and is not a part of the state process to build the controversial urban interstate project.
13 projects are moving forward spread across all five ECI districts. The City-Parish Council authorized the use of $550,000 set aside in 2014 for this purpose. For the most part, the projects are the low-hanging fruit on the ECI plan.
“This first $550,000 is the first step,” ECI Chairwoman Skyra Rideaux tells me. “We want the community to know we’re committed, and it’s not just a plan on a shelf.”
Planners want to distinguish ECI from the Connector. Over the last two years, citizen participants regularly conflated the ECI work with planning work related to the I-49 Connector, a project nearly three decades in the making. While spurred by renewed planning activity on the Connector, the third such revival, the ECI corridor plan is designed to have impact regardless of the Connector’s completion.
“Even if the Connector never happens, our projects will continue to move forward,” Rideaux says. “We’re committed to making sure these communities are no longer held in limbo.”
Limbo is the key here. Blocks of urban core neighborhoods have languished while the Connector’s progress has sputtered. Millions of dollars of properties were purchased by the state over the years to make way for the Connector, including the historic Coburn’s building near the intersection of Second Street and the thruway. That building was spared demolition. Retrofitting it is on the ECI wishlist.
The Connector is plugging away quietly. DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson told me last year he expects environmental studies to be complete in late 2019 and for segments of the project, estimated to cost between $500 million and $1 billion, to be completed incrementally.
Why this matters. These catalyst projects are small solutions relative to the size of the problem. But planning fatigue is a thing. A packed civic calendar of charrettes and studies strains the public’s belief that projects will ever get done, particularly in the historically black, poor neighborhoods the ECI targets. Small wins could show the community that LCG is serious about putting a plan into action.