Cover Story

2015 Influencers of the year

An engine doesn’t go without pistons. You don’t see them, but they’re essential for momentum.

The same can be said for a community: It must have individuals, visionaries and heavy-lifters, folks who create momentum and influence trajectory. Lafayette has them — in spades.

This is our inaugural list of Influencers of the Year — academics, an economic-development executive, candidates for elected office, a Northside preacher, a Southside political operative, builders, planners, marketers and more.

But these aren’t just individual influencers — they’re groups and pairs, too, whose singular purpose and ambition are reframing the status quo in Lafayette. And the gravity they exert is varied. They’ve influenced our politics, the way we do business, who we elect, how we think about and interact with our physical and cultural environment. They’re black, white, female, male, and they’ve helped chart a course in 2015 that will impact our future in 2016 and beyond.

Larry Sides, left, with airport commissioners Valerie Garrett, Paul Guilbeau and Tim Skinner
Photo by Robin May

Selling the Unsellable

You have to hand it to Joey Durel. In his penultimate State of the Parish address in early 2014, the mayor-president floated a “1 Cent, One Year, One Project” sales tax plan, explaining that Lafayette voters would be asked to approve a 1-cent sales tax lasting only one year and earmarked for a single, specific project, a new $90 million Lafayette Regional Airport terminal.

Durel put front and center that improving the airport — travelers’ first impression of Lafayette — at a time when other cities in the state are doing the same should be our priority. But Durel’s blessing was only the beginning. The real heavy lifting came from the airport commission itself and its advertising agency, Sides & Associates. In all, more than 70 presentations, as professional as they were organized, were made to media and various groups around town, starting, importantly, with the “Taxed Enough Already” folks who didn’t put up (much of) a fight. Amazing, right?

Realizing that robust sales tax collections meant they would only need to collect the extra penny for eight months to raise the local $30 million portion (the balance is shared among state and federal dollars and the sale of bonds), the commission immediately informed voters that the tax would end sooner than anticipated. That instilled trust in the process, giving more voters confidence in the unique structure of the temporary tax and the transparent attitude of the people pushing it.

The council agreed to put the measure on the ballot, local media and other key organizations endorsed it, and 59.4 percent of voters approved it in December 2014. We celebrate Durel’s vision and the commission’s efforts this year, just as the tax measure sunsets and the three-stage planning process for the project begins. Work on the terminal and additional parking is set to commence in 2017 at the earliest.

More than building a new terminal, however, what this group did was create a credible blueprint for how to fund critical infrastructure in an anti-new tax environment.

Photo by Robin May

And Then There Was ONE

Most folks around here thought a cross-parish chamber coalition wouldn’t work in Acadiana, even as regionalism had been adopted by chambers of commerce around the South. With the official rollout of One Acadiana, a nine-parish regional economic development organization minted in early 2015, the newly transmogrified President and CEO Jason El Koubi silenced the doubters.

Securing financial commitments of $15 million from member companies, El Koubi was able to fund the initiative for the next five years, securing regional influence and a united roll of priorities that reflected the needs of its disparate parish partners while keeping those other independent chambers intact. That’s some world-moving fundraising and hand-shaking. If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting El Koubi, his muted charisma and gentle sincerity were no doubt essential to those negotiations — to say nothing of his degree from the London School of Economics.

One Acadiana is now poised to set the tone for discussion and development on the renewed but nascent I-49 Connector build, a priority that will contribute to the conclusion of a 25-year-old federal highway project. The regional body has more strength than ever to lobby for infrastructure initiatives mired in a dusty backlog of decaying road projects. El Koubi has driven conversation about Lafayette’s gateways — interstate access points, the first impressions off Lafayette Regional Airport’s jetways — and has kept glaring attention on Lafayette’s appeal to potential employers and employees.

El Koubi has emphasized continued industry diversification, investment in education and workforce development programs to keep the region relevant in a consistently inconsistent commodities market. The prosperous path forward for Acadiana is one that integrates traditional industry strengths and emerging sectors from within and without the geographical sphere of influence.

It’s not a critique to say that El Koubi’s influence is nominal. By creating an officially unified destiny for regional commerce, he has collectivized Acadiana’s buying power for a future worth investing in.

Photo by Robin May

A Quiet Voice for Change

The way the Rev. Ken Lazard tells it, District 3 Councilman-elect Pat Lewis flashed true integrity when he took Lazard’s advice to close and rebrand his daiquiri shop on Willow Street. Lazard explained to Lewis that running a drive-thru alcohol dispensary in a community plagued with alcoholism was counter-productive to revitalizing the beleaguered neighborhoods Lewis wanted to represent. Lewis’ swift concession to the pastor’s counsel surely does give reason for optimism about council leadership on the Northside, but it more-so provides keen insight into Lazard’s role as a district conscience. Sure, the decision was Lewis’ to make. But Lewis’ revelation that such a decision ought to be made was Lazard’s influence.

Lazard is a boisterous unifier — a man capable of holding elected leaders to higher moral and ethical standards. His quiet and private support for candidates he believed could patch cracks in a fractured community edifice moved mountains with a whisper. In Lewis’ resounding, 20-point victory over incumbent Brandon Shelvin, Lazard’s influence proved that United Ballot’s stranglehold on North Lafayette electoral machinations had gone limp.

Look behind the campaign successes of Sheriff-elect Mark Garber, Mayor-President-elect Joel Robideaux, Sen.-elect Gerald Boudreaux and you’ll see the character influence levied by Lazard. He’s built considerable credibility as a community leader in his neighborhood beautification work, labored alongside the eager and faithful hands of his congregation at Destiny of Faith Church, currently gathering on Cameron Street. You can see that credibility in rows of restored houses in Truman, in the beauty he’s sewn where once were blighted lots and in the establishment of the Eric B. Taylor Community Health Center.

He’s a man whose reputation demands counsel. Robideaux knows that. He put Lazard on his transition team as a member of the Community Development and Housing Committee.

Soon, Lazard’s congregation will move to a new church location on Patterson Street — the crimson girders and concrete foundation that herald its construction loom as the foundation of a new era of leadership in North Lafayette.

Greg Walls, left, and Robert Guercio
Photo by Robin May

Upping the Ante Downtown

Downtown is getting its buzz back, slowly but surely. In the past few years, we’ve seen some real commercial and cultural victories for the district and 2015 was no exception.

Greg Walls first made a Downtown name for himself with Johnson’s Boucaniere — an urban iteration of his wife Lori’s legendary family grocery and specialty meat shop. And while no doubt we appreciate the growing presence of country ribs and the tantalizing odors that come from his end of Downtown, Walls’ work as a builder and developer in 2015 has pushed new concepts into old Downtown spaces. He positively transformed a dilapidated skeleton of a structure at 1019 Lee Ave. into a model of a vintage contemporaneity. At one time easily the best-looking Crossfit facility in the South, Walls’ building now houses Ceaux, an innovative shared workspace concept. That’s a mouthful of influence before you even get to the renovation at the Walls-owned Jefferson Street storefront that now houses Rêve Coffee Roasters. Overnight, the blanched brick walls have become a go-to gathering place for Lafayette luminati and literati alike. Walls’ elegant touch is all over Downtown’s gathering places.

If you’re under 35, chances are you’ve had too much to drink at Robert Guercio’s staple Downtown bar The Green Room. Given the bar’s popularity, you’d be forgiven for assuming that’s where Guercio hangs his hat. Sit down with him for three minutes, and he’ll give you a dense primer on sustainable commerce. Enter The Wurst Biergarten, Downtown’s first dyed-in-the-wool pop-up restaurant concept. Guercio has managed to take a vacant plot along Jefferson Street, at one time suspended in the purgatory of an unrealized condo development, and re-imagine it as a German-style biergarten and open-air market. At stage center is a re-purposed shipping container that will serve as the site’s indoor facility. Walls have literally come down to make this happen, informally annexing Parc Lafayette by arranging for the removal of the nook park’s exterior. Unconventional? Sure. But that’s the kind of thinking that pays dividends in destination dining and shopping, and, most important, attracts world-class businesses.

Jim Poché, of Poché Prouet & Associates, has demonstrated a knack for putting Downtown’s structural assets to work for incoming businesses. If you’ve ridden a Hub City Cycle to French Press in the past few years, you have his company’s revision of the old Tribune Printing plant on Vermilion Street to thank for that delightful Sunday morning. In his latest feat, Poché worked closely with incoming public company Perficient to find a Downtown home for a software development center that’s set to bring more than 200 new jobs to the district. By renovating the near obsolete facilities of the former Jefferson Street Market, Poché has made a comfortable bed for Perficient’s resting place. His efforts in securing a property tax abatement on the structure during renovation put a proverbial mint on the pillow. The surest way to influence Downtown’s make-up and infrastructure is investment. To that end, Poché has shown persistence and initiative to make a better central business district.

Photo by Robin May

The Chairman Will See You

There’s a reason City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux will be sworn into his third term in January without an opponent at the ballot box this fall or in 2011: He’s been an effective, engaged, energetic politician who understands his constituents and fights hard for their interests.

This year marks the second time in his eight years in office that Boudreaux has been elected by his fellow council members to serve as council chairman, and Boudreaux has made the most of it. Under his gavel in 2015 the council approved both PlanLafayette — the comprehensive master plan — as well as the Unified Development Code, two of the most important and impactful initiatives our community has undertaken in the 20-year history of consolidated government. Boudreaux supported both.

He also fought for widening the boundary of the tax increment financing district at Louisiana Avenue and Interstate 10 to cover construction of additional infrastructure to accommodate more commercial activity in his district — in a stroke of theatrical genius, the chairman famously compiled a video of Lafayette’s Tea Party contingent praising the Louisiana Avenue/I-10 TIF at a previous council meeting and aired it in the council auditorium on the night they showed up in opposition to widening the very same TIF, making them look like fools and hypocrites — and he later successfully pushed an ordinance to block low-income, multi-family housing within the boundaries of the Louisiana Avenue Zoning and Development Overlay District, rightfully arguing such housing would make big-box retailers and other high-end businesses less inclined to pour slabs in the area.

Having no opposition for his 2015 re-election bid also afforded the council chairman time to devote to another important cause that will have a lasting, positive impact on Lafayette: helping his brother, Gerald Boudreaux, win the District 24 Senate seat currently occupied by bombastic blowhard Sen. Elbert Guillory. The North Lafayette and south St. Landry Senate district is now assured of competent representation.
All in all, Kenneth Boudreaux has had the golden touch.

The Strategist

Jared Arsement. Remember that name. Although you probably won’t be hearing it much, because his work is done behind the scenes, you can bet it’ll be the name guiding many successful political campaigns.
And he’s only 34 — one of two young architects of Democrat John Bel Edwards’ improbable win over Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Technically, Arsement was in charge of the campaign’s media (he primarily does TV and radio for his clients), but he was without a doubt its key strategist. He also worked on the successful campaigns of Republicans Joel Robideaux, Mark Garber and Jean-Paul Coussan and Democrat Gerald Boudreaux. Of the nine races he was involved with this cycle, his only losses were Stephen Ortego’s legislative re-election and Eddie Guidry’s bid for judge in the 16th JDC.

Remember the so-called “prostitutes over patriots” commercial, the one Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd said “might be the most vicious negative ad ever” — the same one the nonpartisan PolitiFact and The Lens bestowed a “Mostly True” rating on? That was Arsement, and he’s not backing down from the decision to air it. “That may be the most true negative ad that’s ever been made,” maintains Arsement, explaining the depth of research that went into confirming its content and the strategic decision to hold the ad for months. Like he had done with the election itself — Arsement meticulously diagnosed voter attitudes, but the opponent had to be Vitter — his timing was spot on. Polling showed Vitter’s already-low favorability rating immediately slide even further, as the senator found himself unable to contest the commercial’s accuracy.

Thanks in large part to his trio of mentors, the late Ray Teddlie, Raymond “Coach” Blanco and David Walker, Arsement can analyze polling like nobody’s business.

It’s not widely known that Arsement, a Lafayette native, was one of only four people in Edwards’ inner circle for much of the race; others were Communications Director Mary-Patricia Wray, State Rep. Sam Jones and Edwards’ wife, Donna. The political consultant, who has a degree from UNO’s film school, is keenly aware of the opportunity Edwards gave him when he offered the work at Washington Mardi Gras in 2013. Arsement recalls telling Wray the morning after the Nov. 21 victory: “We are both in our early 30s, and it will never get better than this.”

On that point, he just might be wrong.

From left: Ursula Anderson, Nanette Cook, Alicia Chaisson, Liz Webb Hebert, Sevie Zeller, Dr. Monique Koll and Charlotte Stemmans Clavier
Photo by Robin May

A Council of Women

There does not appear to be a common thread for why so many women stepped up to run for the Lafayette City-Parish Council this year, but did they ever answer the call. In what can only be described as historic for the parish, eight respected women from all corners of the parish — multiple decades apart in age and all lacking political experience — ran for the council this year, clearly blazing a trail for many who will follow in their footsteps.

It’s remarkable and certainly discouraging that no woman has ever been elected to the consolidated council in its 20-year history (Michele Ezell and Mary Morrison briefly served unexpired terms).

Because of this group of eight’s collective stand, however, that changes on Jan. 4 when two of them, Nanette Cook in District 7 and Liz Webb Hebert in District 8, are sworn in. “This whole experience has been amazing, exhausting, invigorating and definitely enlightening,” Cook says. The other women who ran were Dr. Monique Koll, Sevie Zeller, Ursula Anderson, Charlotte Stemmans Clavier, Alicia Chaisson and Carol Ross (not pictured).

Hebert, who vowed to give up her eight-year career at the Cajundome if elected (because LCG has budget oversight of the dome), calls it “one of the hardest and scariest but one of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced.”

“If you run a campaign like we have, you don’t rest,” Hebert says. “You attend every coffee meeting, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, social, fundraiser, forum, debate, parade, in order to meet people. You also spend every afternoon/weekend walking door to door in your district to spread the word about your campaign. You obsess over how you can spend every donated dollar in the best way possible. You do this as a candidate in hopes that people in your district hear what you have to say and that it resonates with them enough for them to vote on Election Day.”

Ladies, we salute you. But your candidacies beg the question: Who’s next?

Photo by Robin May

A Dynamic Duo

When Kevin Blanchard was promoted from Lafayette Consolidated Government’s chief development officer to director of public works and Carlee Alm-LaBar moved into the CDO position after four years as City-Parish President Joey Durel’s assistant, the stars aligned for Lafayette. That alignment has shifted as Blanchard recently left LCG to take a job in the private sector, but the work the pair did in 2014 and 2015 helping craft both PlanLafayette, AKA the comprehensive master plan, and the Unified Development Code will serve the community for decades to come.

Blanchard’s involvement in Lafayette’s development hasn’t ended: At this writing he is set to serve a four-year term on the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team. And while Alm-LaBar’s future with LCG remains a question mark as City-Parish President-elect Joel Robideaux assembles his cabinet, it is our fervent hope that she is asked to stay.

The pair, separately and together, had a hand in just about every community development, zoning/codes and beautification initiative Lafayette has undertaken over the last few years. Before being hired as CDO, Blanchard, a journalist-turned-attorney, chaired the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee. With a master’s degree in public administration from LSU, Alm-LaBar was also heavily involved in the PlanLafayette process from the jump, and she was the ideal candidate to replace Blanchard when he became head of Public Works. They were there at every step of processes, from developing action items and coordinating community engagement to — and this is arguably as important as any role — explaining PlanLafayette and the UDC, not only to the public through the media but to a sometimes skeptical City-Parish Council that ultimately got on board.

As Durel said in announcing the promotions of Blanchard and Alm-LaBar last December: “[T]hey bring fresh energy and set the tone for the work we can get done in the next 12 months. ...Kevin and Carlee are part of the next generation of leaders who will help take Lafayette into the future.”

From left: Hector LaSala, Geoff Gjertson, Corey Saft and Kari Smith
Photo by Robin May

Building a Better Community

So much more than blueprints and calipers, UL Lafayette’s School of Architecture and Design is a dynamo in the community, engaged in and engaging our neighborhoods, notably those within the urban core that surround our university, and helping shape our relationship and appreciation for our physical spaces. Sure, it cranks out top-shelf architects, interior- and industrial designers, but it is also having a lasting impact on Lafayette in myriad ways. Tom Sammons is its director.

The school’s Sustainable Development Lab, headed by Corey Saft, is a practice-based lab that engages students in the development process through real, hands-on projects. Among those recent projects are a study and census of homes and other structures in Lafayette’s historic Freetown neighborhood that will lead this year to a Historic District designation, making homes and businesses there eligible for restoration tax credits; the Lab is also aiding the redevelopment of Four Corners.

The schools trans-disciplinary Coastal Community Resilience Studio, co-directed by Kari Smith, engages public and community groups like The Nature Conservancy and Evangeline Area Boy Scouts to develop a framework for helping populations adapt to their changing environments. Special emphasis is given to the Chenier Plain and Atchafalaya Basin.

The Geoff Gjertson-directed Building Institute is on the vanguard of practical, sustainable design; the institute’s students have helped build two houses for Habitat for Humanity, for which Gjertson serves as the local chapter’s chairman of the design and construction committee. The Building Institute designed and is currently constructing the gridshell/Lafayette Strong Pavilion in what will be the Camellia Art Park.
The school’s Community Design Workshop, also headed by Sammons, recently redesigned the university’s Quadrangle as well as the master plans for the Apollo Road extension in Scott and another transportation project in St. Landry Parish.

The school’s Urban Studio, under the guidance of Hector LaSala, has long been an advocate for urbanism, offering public lectures and tours of Downtown. LaSala was active in the PlanLafayette development process.