Despite the ongoing arrivals of national chains, local retail and restaurant flavor is still alive and well.
Buckle up for the next eight months, Lafayette, it’s gonna be a quick ride down the rapid economic expansion highway. A cursory drive around town shows a lot of green space on the expanding city limits to be realized into a new crop of nationally anchored retail and shopping developments.
Starting with the summer 2014 arrival of Whole Foods (which rode onto Ambassador Caffery Parkway on palm branches), the city and adjacent economic zones kicked off what Stirling Properties Retail Leasing and Development Executive Ryan Pécot predicts will be 12 to 18 months of flurried commercial development.
You might be expecting a slowdown because of the drop in oil prices, but Pécot has good insight into the situation given his employer’s role brokering the next blockbuster retail move-in that is the Costco-anchored Ambassador Town Center, currently set to open in March of 2016 near the corner of Kaliste Saloom Road and Ambassador Caffery Parkway. The 450,000-square-foot commercial space is 95 percent leased with nationallybranded occupants sure to make folks with Panera envie salivate into dehydration.
New-to-Lafayette, heavy hitting retailers like Nordstrom Rack, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Field and Stream are confirmed to open alongside Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers (one of two confirmed upcoming locations), Panda Express, and voila! Panera Bread number two. Sure to be affectionately called Panera II in the parlance of local plate-luncheries.
According to Pécot, from a national brand perspective developments like Ambassador Town Center have a way of improving the profit viability of formerly “tertiary” markets like Lafayette. As a result, chains previously only available to larger, sexier markets like Houston or Atlanta (e.g. Nordstrom Rack or Field and Stream) are enticed to enter the fray. It’s like climbing a chain store ladder. Whole Foods sees Fresh Market in Lafayette. Whole Foods arrives. Costco sees Whole Foods in Lafayette. Costco arrives. Considering how far the city has come in terms of commercial growth and total retail sales figures, from $4.35 billion in 2005 to a record $6.41 billion in 2014, Lafayette has climbed several rungs to attract the “caliber” of businesses currently arriving in droves. Still, according to Pécot, we got a ways to go.
“We’re lower on the ladder than we like to believe and we have a fantastic story to tell,” Pécot says. “We still have a lot of blue sky.”
That ladder, it should be noted, only counts to the value of a city if you’re rating that community on the number of national chains that deign to do business with it. It’s clearly been a priority for the city to attract new businesses. The passing of the TIF extension in the North Lafayette economic zone reflects a further commitment to that end, and without giving up names, Pécot notes the vote has added further ammunition to the cause of public/private partnership with an unspecified national grocery chain, a fastfood joint and a gas station company all eying space in that area. That’s potential growth in addition to already committed projects like a Super 1 Foods and Race Trac at Pont Des Mouton Road and a Hardee’s at Gloria Switch Road.
As for long-term forecasts, Pécot predicts that recent development downpours will let up cyclically. Adding just above 10 percent growth (750,000 square feet on top of the existing 6 million) in retail square footage over an 18-month period portends a market fatigue for new national competitors entering the local economy.
Typically the move-in of big bad box stores is accompanied by progressive public outcry, a lament for the mom and pop salad days, and media comment circulating tropes on a David vs. Goliath narrative. But a big part of Lafayette’s growth story has happened in the world of local and independent operators. Adjacent to that expansion to 6 million square feet of nationally anchored retail space is an impressive tide of farm-to-table restaurants, independent fashion boutiques, kitchenware shops and specialty goods stores like Red Arrow Workshop in River Ranch. Opened three years ago by husband and wife creative dynamo Jillian Johnson and Jason Brown, Red Arrow has seen growth and viability in a market that seems simultaneously hospitable to parking lot behemoths and niche boutiques alike. The secret to that success is providing Hub citizens with an experience not readily available at mega stores, by showing curated aesthetic vision and social responsibility. And that vision or social responsibility is not mutually exclusive with enjoying the convenience and value addition of a major national retail or restaurant player.
“Our customers shop at Target. Our customers shop at Barnes and Noble, our customers shop at Whole Foods. They shop everywhere,” Johnson says. “I think they come to us for a very specific experience.”
A unique, unreplicable shopping or dining experience has been at the heart of much of Lafayette’s recent retail renaissance. Shops like Downtown’s Genterie Supply Company and River Ranch’s Maven Menswear and Maven Womenswear shops have led the way in retail, while new restaurants and restaurateurs have continued to percolate new concepts around Acadiana or face-lifts on Lafayette dining traditions. Pop’s Poboys Downtown had a not-so-soft opening before Festival International with lines around the corner. Saigon Noodle pho acolytes can now enjoy an expansive and playful Vietnamese spin at new spot Blue Basil in Time Plaza. That’s not to mention tasty murmurings I’ve heard about Carencro’s Fricasse Café or Patacon’s Latin Cuisine on Bertrand Drive.
Folks have long been fanatical in this town about their food, and getting things done in a Lafayette fashion. Widespread, rabid arguments about best burgers, best po-boys, best plate lunches, demonstrate a genetic predisposition for profound loyalty to purveyors of local foodways. But recent developments present new banners to rally behind: best pho, best coffee, best farm-to-table, or best place to get dressed sharp, or buy artisan products. None of this appears to be stifled by the addition of a Moe’s on Ambassador Caffery or a Zaxby’s on Verot School Road.
The crux of the matter is common, run of the mill capitalism: Give the people what they want at the right price.