Dec. 16, 2014 09:52 AM

As energy prices soften, Lafayette gets a wake-up call: Diversification of our local economy — and support of the initiatives that nurture it — are at the top of everyone’s to-do list.

South Louisiana’s economy has been resilient throughout The Great Recession of this century, stoked primarily by a robust oil and gas industry. And though a rebound is expected in the next year or so, at this writing oil is in the $60/barrel range. “It will certainly crimp the amount of money flowing into Acadiana,” says Stone Energy CEO Dave Welch. It also reminds us that there is work yet to be done to diversify our local economy.

As business leaders plan for 2015, I polled a small group of them in Lafayette to get a sense of priorities in the year ahead. Economic diversification and the assets that drive it were top-of-mind for them all. Says Erick Knezek, CEO of Truston Technologies (which debuted on ABiz’s Top 50 list this year at No. 49): “I’m concerned about our economic diversity. We are still highly dependent on oil and gas services. As the LNG market develops, we will again become increasingly dependent on the oil and gas market. This is great when things are prosperous, but I’d like to see a continued push for more economic diversity, including technology, health care and manufacturing.”

Quality public schools are one driver for economic development, and Knezek is a new member of the Lafayette Parish School Board, which he says is poised for a fresh start. Noting that Lafayette ranks 64th among the state’s 69 school districts in funding from all sources, he is grappling with the need for more. “We can’t change the MFP money [state funding], but we can change our local taxes to become a leader in public education investment,” he says. “This will take building public confidence, educating them on the reality of the problem, and properly executing a campaign to pass a tax millage. I hate taxes, but in this case I see it as a necessity. We can’t save and cut our way to excellence.”

Several local planning and community pride initiatives converge this year, all designed to create the kind of quality of life improvements that can draw new business and diversify our base. That includes the University Commons Master Plan, Plan Lafayette, the Horse Farm, Project Front Yard and Downtown residential development. “This is important if we want to attract and retain corporate investment in new sectors and the talent that is looking for a high-quality urban lifestyle,” notes Greater Lafayette Chamber CEO Jason El Koubi.

LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux understands the urgency. “To meet current demand, we have to find, grow, train or import roughly 1,000 digital media employees,” he says.

And political relations guru Tyron Picard foresees a shortage of skilled labor as well: “I am afraid that the inertia of the southwest Louisiana industrial boom will create an incredible labor shortage statewide.”

Of course retiring City-Parish President Joey Durel has been a driving force behind Lafayette’s newfound appreciation for quality-of-life planning initiatives. “We have great momentum going,” he says. “I want to get most of the projects we have been working on to a point that they can’t be slowed down.” That includes getting the Unified Development Code through the council in April. The recent refusal of the council to support transformation of the old federal courthouse into Downtown residential housing was a huge disappointment for many. “A new federal courthouse will never realistically be built on this site,” Durel says, noting that the community and the council are unwilling to fund it. “I want us to give the private sector the ability to develop that location [for] multi-use,” he says. “The Downtown can no longer be held hostage by a few waiting for something unrealistic.”

Durel says LUS Fiber continues to spur economic development and points to progress toward snagging a medical school for Lafayette — further opportunities for diversification.

We also have to elect officials at the state and local level this fall who can deliver on the big picture. “Lafayette/Acadiana needs to define and communicate its priorities at the state level,” says El Koubi, “and we’ll have that opportunity under a new governor and Legislature.”

Locally, Bruce Conque is retiring as El Koubi’s VP in hopes of re-election to his former seat on the Lafayette City-Parish Council. His priority is to ensure the success of the many planning initiatives now underway and to promote better relationships between the council, the school board and other local agencies to move the community forward more efficiently.

In Hillary DePiano’s play New Year’s Thieve, Mother Time says, “We all get the exact same 365 days. The only difference is what we do with them.” In 2015, Lafayette’s leaders understand the need to make sure every one of them counts.

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