Each Tuesday afternoon, ABiz publishes its online newsletter, ABuzz. In case you missed the stories that attracted the most eyeballs last year, here’s why so many readers paid attention._
1. LUS QUIETLY CLOUDS SOLAR’S FUTURE (NOV. 2)
This Nov. 2 column, a pickup from cleanergy.org, was by far the most read of 2016. It was penned by Lafayette resident Simon Mahan, the renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The gist of it was that a new fixed fee on Lafayette Utilities System’s solar power users, along with the phase-out of the state’s solar tax credits, meant homeowners who invested in solar panels might never see their systems pay for themselves. Within days of the post, LUS Director Terry Huval told ABiz he was going to ask members of the Lafayette City-Parish Council to repeal the ordinance that imposed the fees, saying opposition to the fees caused LUS a headache beyond the value of the issue. District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque, the chairman of the Lafayette Public Utility Authority, joined the repeal effort. And just like that, the fees were history.
2. LAWSUIT: STABIL DRILL’S RUSSO, LEBLANC BILKED COMPANY FOR MILLIONS (APRIL 25)
In April Stabil Drill parent company Superior Energy Services filed a civil suit in Texas against its subsidiary’s former chief operating officer, Christopher Russo, and former chief financial officer, Martin LeBlanc, accusing the duo of masterminding an elaborate scheme to defraud the company. The 42-page petition lays out allegations of self-dealing — and profiting from both sides of transactions — dating back to 2008 and claims Russo, LeBlanc, Scott Kerstetter (all of Lafayette), Daniel Anthony (Texas) and Mike Sheffield (Oklahoma) enriched themselves to the tune of tens of millions of dollars at the expense of Stabil Drill and its related entities. Among the numerous corporate defendants named in the suit are Laguna Oil Tools, Renegade Performance Properties, Renegade Oil Tools and LeBlanc Real Estate Investments, all of Louisiana, and Quest Holdings, Triton Hardbanding Service and MSI Inspection Service, all of Oklahoma. The suit is ongoing, with a third amended petition filed as recent as December.
3. IS STONE ENERGY HEADED FOR BANKRUPTCY? (MAY 17)
For months in early 2016, energy industry analysts and others who follow the sector closely had been predicting that falling oil prices could propel Lafayette based Stone Energy Corp. into bankruptcy. In May Stone itself began acknowledging that possibility, and in mid-December the Lafayette-based oil and gas producer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, reporting $1.2 billion in assets and $1.7 billion in debts. The plan, filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston, calls for Stone to remove $1.2 billion in the principal amount of outstanding debt off its books at the end of the case.
4. FUNEREAL FAMILY FEUD SPILLS INTO COURT (JULY 22)
Morticians fight to the figurative death as a family-owned chain of funeral homes founded in New Iberia almost a half century ago is at the heart of an acrimonious battle among the children and grandchildren of the company’s founders. The case reads like a prime time soap opera without a “Who shot JR?” cliffhanger: A co-founder of David Funeral Home, along with brother and his son, are pitted against another David brother and his children for control of the company; it’s brothers versus brother, cousin against cousins. In July, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal weighed in; the losing side awaits a re-hearing request and has vowed to take the fight all the way to the state Supreme Court if necessary.
5. BUS DRIVER WINS $75K FOR ‘ROUTE FROM HELL’ (APRIL 28)
In April the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal sided with a St. Martin Parish school bus driver and awarded him $75,000 for the mental anguish the driver suffered after being reassigned — after more than 30 years of employment — to the so-called “route from hell.” Gerald Castille started hauling St. Martin Parish students in 1977, paying his dues in the beginning by being assigned the Levee Route, which, according to the appeals court opinion, “traversed long and dangerous gravel roads and was known for having difficult students and parents.” A footnote in the 3rd Circuit’s opinion cites a former school system employee describing the Levee Route as the “route from hell.” Castille was later assigned the Portage Route and a combined Cypress Island/ Terrace Highway Route, which were also considered undesirable routes.
6. DEAL TO BRING FEDEX TO OLD EVD CLOSES (APRIL 11)
In April Greg Saad of Saad Development Corp. out of Mobile, Ala., confirmed to ABiz that his company had purchased the old Evangeline Downs property on I-49 in Carencro for $11 million to develop a distribution center for FedEx Ground. He said Saad Development’s total investment in the 40 acres of land, design, permitting and construction was estimated to be $29 million. Saad purchased the site to construct a 230,000-square-foot facility — two buildings, including one small security structure — that it is leasing to FedEx. The local project represents the largest FedEx Ground distribution facility along Interstate 10 between Houston, Texas, and Jacksonville, Fla. Saad used the front 20 acres, which once housed the race track’s grandstands, for the FedEx project. The northern acreage is for future development.
7. ATCHAFALAYA ANTICS ALIVE AND WELL (MARCH 16)
It’s a complicated mess, for sure, and has been a difficult story to cover. According to landman-turned-whistleblower Dan Collins, who remains actively involved in litigation with the state of Louisiana, over the course of the last decade, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources spent millions of taxpayer dollars in phony environmental projects that earned a small cabal of lawyers, landowners and oil and gas companies an enormous fortune. In the process, each of them allegedly violated scores of federal and state laws, deceived the public and likely harmed Louisiana’s already-imperiled and fragile marshlands and ecosystem.
8. ROCK ’N’ BOWL BUYS OLD WHITNEY BUILDING DOWNTOWN (DEC. 16)
On Dec. 16 ABiz reported that Rock ’n’ Bowl had purchased the former Whitney Bank building and three days later followed up with more details from Johnny Blancher, CEO of Rock ’n’ Bowl’s parent company and son of founder John Blancher. The popular New Orleans-based bowling alley and live music venue, which almost relocated to Lafayette more than a decade ago thanks to an act of nature — Hurricane Katrina — is planning what sounds like the most ambitious project Downtown since the Acadiana Center for the Arts’ expansion seven years ago: 16 bowling lanes — eight lanes each on either side of a stage and dance floor — are planned for the parking lot fronting the building at the Lee-Jefferson intersection. The lanes will be within a cavernous space with a ceiling two stories high, allowing patrons in a second-floor ballroom to look down on the lanes and concert area. The building was purchased for $2.5 million and another approximately $1.5 million will go toward renovations. It’s worth noting that this latest development means two popular New Orleans brands will anchor either end of Jefferson Street and Downtown’s nightlife district: the Rock ’n’ Bowl on the south end and Dat Dog, a hot dog purveyor that is renovating the old Times of Acadiana building on the north end of Jefferson at Cypress Street adjacent to the underpass.
9. ACADIA GENERAL HOSPITAL REALIGNING SERVICES (APRIL 1)
It’s still a bit of a mystery as to why this April 1 story generated so much interest among ABiz readers. Acadia General Hospital, which is managed by Lafayette General Health, announced that it was shifting its focus away from delivering babies — saying almost 70 percent of residents leave the parish to deliver at other facilities — and toward more adult medical services in an effort to meet the needs of a faster-growing aging population.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Acadia Parish will see a 1.5 percent growth rate of women of childbearing age over the next five years contrasted against the 13.3 percent of adults who will turn 65. Because of low Medicaid reimbursement rates at AGH, the hospital said it would lose approximately $800,000 in 2016 just in its obstetrics service line, not to mention the $800,000 in capital expenditures needed for obstetrics equipment upgrades. Prenatal and antenatal care is still offered in Acadia Parish, and there are three health care facilities that deliver babies within about 20 miles from AGH: LGMC, American Legion Hospital in Jennings and Acadian Medical Center in Eunice.
10. WAYNE ELMORE STEPS IN AT KNIGHT OIL TOOLS (MAY 10)
In May, amid what had become mounting speculation that a private equity firm had stepped in to purchase Knight Oil Tools’ massive debt at a discount, came confirmation from various sources that Lafayette businessman Wayne Elmore had stepped into a prominent role at the troubled oilfield services firm. The former banker/media executive did not return ABiz messages left on his voicemail at the company’s Lafayette office, and our phone call earlier in the year was transferred to Jeff Elmore, Wayne’s son who is a local attorney. It’s unclear what role either Elmore is playing at the company, though sources say the Elmore connection is likely tied to their relationship with Kelley Knight Sobiesk, one of the three sibling owners of Knight Oil Tools, along with their mother, Ann Knight. (It’s unknown what, if any, ownership the Knights retain.) Wayne Elmore, who has no known experience in the oil services sector, spent most of his career as a top executive of Communications Corporation of America (or Comcorp), which was once a small-market radio and television station group co-owned by Tom Galloway. After emerging from bankruptcy in 2007, Comcorp sold all of its assets a few years ago.
AMONG OTHER BIG BUSINESS NEWS IN 2016:
* In August, the Ethics Adjudicatory Board slapped Lafayette developer Greg Gachassin, the former chairman of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, with $1.6 million in penalties and fines, the largest in the state’s history. Ethics records show that the most substantial fine ever handed down before this case was for $650,000 in 2001 against attorneys involved in tobacco litigation. He is appealing.
* At ABiz’s State of the Economy luncheon in June, Chris Meaux, the founder of Lake Charles-based Waitr Inc., confirmed plans to develop a 100-job technology operations center in Lafayette for his delivery app Waitr, which connects restaurants to diners through a smartphone menu and digital marketing platform for iPhone and Android users.
* Just before year’s end, California-based Crown Bioscience Inc. confirmed plans to establish a pharmaceutical research and development facility at the New Iberia Research Center, a project the global drug discovery and development company says will enable it to advance treatments for cardiovascular and metabolic disease research.