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Special taxing districts for Downtown, Northside, Acadiana Mall and more move forward

The gist: Six new economic development districts passed introduction Tuesday by the City-Parish Council, in a rush of legislation on the council’s waning agenda for the year. The districts would levy new sales and hotel taxes to make improvements advocates say would spark economic activity in areas that need it. A vote on final adoption is set in December. 

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Here are the six districts: Downtown, University Gateway, Trappey Riverfront Development along the Vermilion River, Northway District anchored by Northgate Mall, Holy Rosary Institute and the Acadiana Mall.  

Taxes would be confined to district boundaries. The districts propose different tax rates and sunsets — varying between 1% and 2% sales and 1% and 2% hotel occupancy — but follow more or less the same structure. Council members — for the time being, from the City-Parish Council — will serve as each district’s governors, with the power to levy taxes, and will enter a cooperative endeavor agreement with private or public entities and the city of Lafayette. 

Half of the districts are on the northside. The area has long been in decline. Advocates argue consolidated government has not prioritized infrastructure and economic development needs on that side of town. Proponents view the districts as essential tools for bootstrapping prosperity. Rehabbing and redeveloping blighted property, streetscaping and land acquisition are on all three northside district lists. The Holy Rosary district prioritizes repairs of the historic school itself, construction of an African-American heritage museum and building a medical clinic. 

“We know we need economic development on the Northside,” said Ravis Martinez, part of a private development linked to the Northgate Mall district, in remarks Tuesday night. “When are we going to invest on the Northside of Lafayette? When are we going to take a hard look at ourselves, a hard look at the big box facilities and stores moving out? What are we going to do for the Northside of town?”  

Downtown advocates say they need the money. A lack of sewer capacity Downtown has choked the district’s ability to attract residential development. LUS rolled out a multimillion dollar sewer infrastructure upgrade intended to address the problem, but it won’t be complete for several years. Anita Begnaud, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority, tells The Current the district will give Downtown some independence in getting basic and necessary infrastructure in place.

“People want to develop here. The reality is nobody can get a bank to give them $1 million upfront to build a lift station,” Begnaud says. “Something’s got to be done to lift that hurdle.” 

The districts’ boundaries exclude registered voters. This is a common practice in drafting economic development districts. Without registered voters in the districts, the governing authority can levy taxes without a general election that would otherwise be required to be held for the voters within the districts. In Downtown’s case, drawing the district this way makes for a patchwork map that excludes addresses with registered voters associated. In some cases, people use commercial properties as their registered address, which then excludes those businesses from the district. 

“Almost every EDD is created on a greenfield site where there are not registered voters,” Begnaud says.

Critics take issue with the bundling of several districts at the tail end of an outgoing government. On top of the question of timing, there has been fierce ideological opposition to this financing approach, particularly among staunch conservatives who view the mechanism as a form of crony capitalism and a distortion of the free market. 

“This is all new in Lafayette, and it’s moving awfully fast,” said Councilman William Theriot, one of only two votes against establishing the districts, joined by fellow conservative council member Jared Bellard. Bellard and Theriot have both consistently opposed the financing strategy — often broadly referred to as tax increment financing districts or TIFs. Councilwoman Liz Hebert moved to defer the batch of ordinances carrying the districts until next year but was voted down by advocates urging immediate action. 

Lafayette has experimented with economic development districts before. The Target-anchored shopping center on Louisiana Avenue was built using a similar financing strategy. Proponents touted the development’s success as a proof of concept Tuesday night, arguing it should be put to good use within Lafayette’s urban core. 

What’s next? Should the districts pass final adoption in December, their governing boards — effectively the members of the City-Parish Council and, later, the City Council — would have to approve levying the proposed taxes. That means Dec. 17 isn’t necessarily the final stop. Council members could create the districts and approve the CEAs but punt levying the taxes to the City Council. Based on the conversation Tuesday, there was little appetite for waiting.

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