March 31, 2017 12:46 AM

Photo by Christiaan Mader

[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a presentation to "Chattanooga's chief technology officer." Chattanooga does not have a CTO. We regret the error.]

Wherever Mayor Robideaux went yesterday, Chattanooga, Tenn., cast a long shadow, all the way from the Appalachian foothills to cast over his day in the sun. Lafayette, it seems, has grown insecure about a regional competitor that once lagged by the Hub City in the race for public fiber.

The mayor spent his day musing about Lafayette’s future, culminating with the launch of his CREATE cultural economy initiative at the inaugural Robideaux Report, his annual state of the parish address held at the Heymann Center. There, he ticked off the cities in competition for the millennials he’s trying, with self-effacing good humor, to understand.

Nashville, the self-appointed home of country music. Austin, where the innovators play. And Chattanooga, a city so similar in size and stature that it bears excruciating comparison.

CREATE is a laudable enterprise, even if the mayor left open the question of what tangible first steps he’ll take with the project. Positioning investment into Lafayette’s cultural economy as a matter of good fiscal management demonstrates the mayor’s folksy pragmatism, and the emergence of a signature brand.

Almost to a fault, Robideaux has spent the year with his ear to the ground, listening for public opinion, an indulgence taken by every politician, to be sure. In announcing CREATE, he’s taken on a dramatic position in tough economic times. But given his people-pleasing tendencies, without question the savvy mayor knew it was a make-able case.

Were Hub Citizens not so damned proud of their culture, such fetishizing of the arts would be political suicide in such a conservative place. Just ask the National Endowment for the Arts.

But back to Chattanooga. What the mayor likely sees in the River City is an attainable model of success for Lafayette at a time of economic instability.

Chattanooga faltered as an industrial powerhouse in the 20th century, nearly collapsing with the decline of American industrial manufacturing. In the 1980s, developers in the city pioneered southern interest in adaptive reuse of dilapidated buildings, creating Warehouse Row and laying the foundation for the Tennessee Riverpark, which features a pedestrian and cycling path that connects the city’s impressive downtown with nearby neighborhoods.

Last year, the city completed three more miles to the now 13-mile path at a cost of $16 million. Those three miles are said to have accounted for more than $200 million in development projects since expansion on Chattanooga’s crown jewel was announced. Now the problem is rising home prices in gentrifying neighborhoods, a common social equity problem in successful cities.

Before the mayor called Chattanooga out as a competitor in his evening speech, commentators at the inaugural Smart Community Summit held Chattanooga out as an aspiration in the world of smart planning and technology. One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi noted the city’s enviable successes, prompted by an impressive presentation by a Chattanooga technologist just before a panel on Lafayette’s burgeoning efforts to do the same.

On Thursday morning, Mayor Robideaux announced Lafayette’s own receipt of $150,000 in grants from the Mozilla Community Fund and made known his intent to explore the power of building a smart city ecosystem in service of Lafayette’s public good. He pointed out that moving in that direction is a must if the city is to retain and attract young talent and high-dollar tech jobs. Fiber brought Mozilla here.

Chattanooga, as noted, was an early adopter in public fiber initiatives. Like Lafayette, that distinction attracted attention from tech companies. Amazon.com has offices in Chattanooga and the city is a fellow Mozilla fund recipient, a program that provides sprint grants to nonprofits looking to make tech-aided advancements in education.

But if Lafayette wants to catch up with Chattanooga, competing for the millennials that the mayor wisely understands he needs, it’s going to need to take a hard look at its priorities. Chattanooga is a leader in performance-based planning, prioritizing projects through its Transportation Planning Organization — equivalent to Lafayette’s Metropolitan Planning Organization — that promote bike and pedestrian connectivity, eschewing sprawl and needless roadway expansions left and right.

Chattanooga famously removed an urban expressway to make room for the riverfront parks pictured here.
Photo courtesy of CNU

Most notably, Chattanooga has shown a willingness to think beyond highways for economic development. In 2004, the city tore down an urban expressway separating the city’s historic downtown from the riverfront. Not only did the move open up development, it made room for a stunning public park and plaza, with elegant concrete steps that double as steps for a riverside amphitheater.

CREATE is an ambitious enterprise, but one that could very well pay off on the road to catching up with regional competitors. But the principles espoused, and the financial real talk that restrain them, must be brought to bear in the mayor’s other priorities like the I-49 Connector and revitalization of the North University gateway, and on every mile of roadway that he lobbies for.

By the mayor’s reckoning, dollars spent must return revenue, a logic that undergirded CREATE’s rationale. He borrowed Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser’s napkin calculation that funding in the cultural economy returns 38-fold on every dollar. But even if Nungesser is wrong, Robideaux reasoned, and the factor is only half what the lieutenant governor says, it’s money well spent.

The mayor knows he needs to make every dollar count so long as the price of oil remains down. He should know that principle also applies to land use, roadway expansion and billion dollar interstate projects.

Otherwise, we’ll always be chasing Chattanooga.

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