As the city bus lumbers by Lafayette Middle School into the Saint Streets, tour guide Wayne Domingue, an architect, points out the academic brick design he says was common for buildings of the 1920s. It used to be Lafayette High School, he explains to a bus load of 20 new residents and natives, but now it’s a middle school accessible to the historic neighborhoods that surround it. With lush tree canopies over boulevards, charming mid-century homes with generous yards, dogs on walks and kids sweating summer, it’s about as picturesque as Lafayette gets from a tinted window. As the bus winds around the old city center of Downtown, the UL Lafayette campus, historic Moss Street and the Saint Streets, it’s easy to drink in a vision of humid Southern gentility like a glass of lemonade. But once the circle breaks into the outer valences of the city, Lafayette’s decades of poor zoning and urban planning begins to show, and it doesn’t have great curb appeal.
The tour is part of Leadership Institute of Acadiana’s inaugural Intro Lafayette program, a two-day civic welcome committee developed in partnership with One Acadiana and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority. Through a series of presentations and ice-breakers, Chairman Mark Mouton (also LEDA’s director of business retention and expansion) and his staff of eager, energized ambassadors give recruited business talent, returning émigrés and lifelong residents access to a remarkable amount of civic and political resources. As the name suggests, the seminar seeks to introduce folks to Lafayette’s community switchboard. Want to get plugged into local environmental advocacy? Here’s Babette Werner of Bayou Vermilion Preservation. Love cycling and the outdoors? Here’s Scott Schilling with TRAIL. How about joining a Mardi Gras Krewe? John Chappuis explains the revelry with the systematic calm of an anthropologist.
Any city is dizzying upon a move. It’s like staring at a menu at a New Jersey diner, thumbing page after page of disorganized choices when all you want is pastrami on rye. Lafayette’s no different, and Intro Lafayette seeks to be your dining buddy looking over your shoulder and saying, “If you like sandwiches, you should probably check out page three.”
“If a company recruits someone from out of town, usually in that three- to five-year range, if they haven’t gotten acclimated into the community they tend to start to go, ‘We want to go back home.’ And many times it’s not the person who’s in the company. It’s the trailing spouse,” says Mouton.
Trailing spouse Heather Astleford of Kansas City, Kan., moved into town just before Mardi Gras 2015. The Mardi Gras ball scene as portrayed on local television made for a steep and surreal learning curve to a Midwesterner from a dense urban center. She takes a minute during Chappuis’s presentation to get the low-down on why the hell anyone would spend $100,000 on a fake scepter and a crown. The round table alights with talk of Louisiana’s annual party, as old salt natives and recently vetted residents try to explain the tradition in more familiar terms. A débutante ball. A wedding. Anything that will convey to Astleford how to understand profligate spending on the pomp of a fictional monarchy.
“Moving here felt like moving to another country that speaks the same language. Maybe even a different language,” she laughs to me later. “I moved to the South for the first time. I moved to Louisiana for the first the time.”
Astleford is one of the many demographics Intro Lafayette is trying to reach, smoothing the transition of incoming business talent and their spouses by opening wide the doors to civic involvement that otherwise appear unmarked and closed. Mouton intends to not limit the program to new faces, insisting long timers can benefit from access to the cultural and civic enrichment highlighted by Intro Lafayette.
“This is for people who want to figure out where they can get engaged,” says Mouton. “New residents or those who want to get re-engaged into the community. Or someone who’s been in the community for years and just doesn’t know what to do. This is a way to get them introduced.”
But while much of this excellent program is pertinent to longtime residents, i.e. those who’ve already drunk from the well, much of what’s at stake here is the marketing of Lafayette’s charms to folks not yet fully rooted in it, and thus more likely to bolt. To that end, Intro Lafayette is selling a 25-year cure for the three- to five-year blues.
This is a Sisyphean effort given what Mouton et al. have to work with. And to be sure, they are upfront about the challenges the city currently faces, even when pointing out the strides in city planning they’ve made in recent years. During the portions of the tour that traverse blow-by eyesores of accessible but half-vacant parking lots, mixed income neighborhoods, commercial and residential zone confusion and miles of late 20th century sprawl, Domingue and Mouton point out changes that are sure to come. A blighted zombie Winn Dixie anchoring a row of leases soon to run out will one day host the next rung up the retail ladder. A traditional neighborhood development here. A future I-49 corridor there.
To be sure much of the progress is evident from a bus seat. The sculpture garden under construction near River Ranch, the expanded southern campus of Our Lady of Lourdes, Downtown’s more vibrant streets, the coming job injection of CGI’s facility under construction and the grassy utopian potential that is Lafayette Central Park at the Horse Farm. Oohs and aahs, albeit muted, emit over promises of all-you-can eat Brazilian steakhouses, a future medical hub and the LITE egg. General satisfaction sits weightlessly above the tour group, at least as concerns the thoroughness of the tour and Intro Lafayette’s agenda.
“I wish we had this a year ago when we moved here,” says Youngsville-by-way-of-Rhode-Island transplant Jeremy Howard over the din of the natural gas bus.
Still, returning to the Regions Bank conference room overlooking the Horse Farm grassland, the mixed vision of progress on top of decades of regress comes to fore. During a lagniappe presentation on Project Front Yard, the city’s volunteer beautification program, Carlee Alm-Labar of Lafayette Consolidated Government fields tough questions clearly inspired by the still-lingering taste of wild, steaming sprawl.
Mike Barefield, a CGI employee (CGI sponsored the event), relocated recently with his wife and his son’s family (also a CGI employee) from the North Carolina Triangle. He describes the community of Kerry, N.C., that’s Disney World-esque in its infrastructure concealment with bushes and over-brush obscuring business signs and transformers, in stark contrast to the utility and sign jungle that is Johnston Street. Does Lafayette have any intention of moving in that direction, he wonders? Alm-Labar responds admirably with a gentle explanation of Lafayette’s city planning woes at the hands of a Wild West mentality. My words. Not hers. Hers follow:
“We live in a pretty conservative community that doesn’t want a great deal of regulation,” she says. She further explains how that has historically affected the city’s ability to regulate signage and private property upkeep in general.
Joey Krefft, an engineering transplant from Shreveport, seems disgusted by the site of cars on lawns, a horror apparently unseen in Caddo Parish.
“I’ve never seen such prolific yard parking in my life. In Shreveport it’s illegal, and with good reason. It’s ugly. It’s blightful,” he says dryly. “This place seems disjointed in residential regulation. Nice house, then nice house, then meth house.”
That sense of incongruity and patch-work progress permeates my conversations with attendees, although not altogether negatively. Many share the view of Intro Lafayette’s presenters, that these are tangible problems with tangible fixes, so long as folks in organizations both civic and political keep on the current tack toward a rationally planned Lafayette. Others are impressed by the apparent enthusiasm and dedication on display by the Intro Lafayette crew and the program itself. That sort of energy can be infectious, and, short of a miraculous overnight reconfiguration of Lafayette’s street-scape, will be essential to keeping new locals and old locals in the city.
“I see the rough edges and it’s not your [Lafayette’s] best face,” says Barefield, “But what I heard was, ‘We [Lafayette’s city leaders] know that.’ I feel better that people are committed to turning the ship around, but I’m not naive to think this will happen in 15 minutes.”
Attendees seem particularly pleased by that message delivered in person by city officials and leaders like Joey Durel, Dee Stanley, Terry Huval and Downtown Development Authority honcho Nathan Norris. In a post-seminar feedback session, respondents are asked to name aspects of the program that they liked and didn’t like, many highlight the aforementioned talks by Lafayette brass, as well as architect Lynn Guidry’s thoroughgoing city history. Others remark the bounties of Lafayette’s restaurant scene. Signing up just for the food would be worth it: a culinary cavalcade of local delights from Masala Indian Kitchen, Creole Lunch House, Pop’s Poboys, Logan Farms Market Café and Carpe Diem! Gelato to name a few.
The rub for the city as it sails toward a new round of elections and a chance to keep progress afloat is that we make good on those promises to current and future citizens alike. The good work done by programs like Intro Lafayette becomes irrelevant if Lafayette’s future administrations don’t stick to the smart planning currently underway.
The message is loud and clear from Intro Lafayette’s staff as the program ends. “We want you to stay here,” they say in different paraphrases and cadences, all with a genuine hopefulness. Let’s hope we can continue to prove it.
LIA will hold more Intro Lafayette sessions as demand increases, with future classes growing to include as many as 30 participants. For more information on Intro Lafayette, Leadership Lafayette and Lafayette Junior Leadership click here.