Mais Oui

Mais Oui - September 2008

Making the Move from Good to Great Lafayette Parish is often the envy of the rest of Louisiana and, given the company we currently keep, it’s no wonder.

This year we made the cut for The Milken Institute’s Top 25 Best Cities in America. In a recent “Cities of the Future” feature, London’s Foreign Direct Investment magazine ranked us in the country’s top five among cities our size for best quality of life, and Southern Business and Development reports that Lafayette is one of the Top 10 cities in the South for The Creative Class.

It’s a nice position to be in. But the world is ever-changing, and these slots are highly prized. A winner can easily slide off the “A List,” so it’s important for a community to continue to evolve. For Lafayette, it means making the move from good to great and for that to happen, we have to do something new.

We have to invest in our city.

Unfortunately, voters declined the opportunity to do just that when the sales tax for road development was defeated last summer. It was a short-sighted decision that I hope, at some point, will be repackaged and returned to the ballot. When it comes to solving our transportation crisis, we can’t depend on the state. We need — literally — to help pave our own way.

But there are other challenges that need to be addressed if we want to hold or enhance our competitive standing. One of the biggest is the lack of green space, which is a key indicator of the quality of life a community can offer. Sure, we’ve done fairly well in the rankings so far, but we must continue to raise the bar on ourselves. We know that A List cities share many common qualities, including ample green space for residents, and by that gauge, Lafayette is unimpressive (I’m being kind here). The current millage is too low for adequate maintenance of what we have, making expanded acreage for parks fantasy.

Things could change instantly, however, if the city is successful in working out a deal for UL’s Horse Farm. Mayor President Joey Durel and UL President Joe Savoie are at least talking, but the city lacks funds to develop the property, even if it were donated. This leads us to another investment model that is used by progressive A List cities: the use of philanthropy to fund public spaces.

The city of Dallas has its own foundation for public parks that attracts private dollars used, in part, to secure state and federal grants to help complete the city’s master green space plan. A percentage of every donation is reserved in a permanent endowment to help fund maintenance. San Diego’s famously beautiful Balboa Park is subsidized by several endowment funds that supplement its city budget allocation and are managed by its community foundation. Some allow for generic needs, like maintenance; others are more specific. My favorite is an endowment from a man in memory of his late wife so that her favorite flower — the Easter lily — will be planted throughout the park each year, forever.

Here, the Community Foundation of Acadiana can manage such donations. Theoretically, a major donor could purchase the Horse Farm, donate it to the city and, through the foundation, challenge the community to raise the development dollars required. If not the Horse Farm, this model could work for other public spaces, and the time is now! Our robust local economy, fueled primarily by a red hot energy sector that will likely last for years, has created a window of wealth in this community that is unprecedented. Hopefully, we can channel that success into largesse that can translate into something more significant for the community as a whole.

In the past, abundant personal wealth was achieved by a very few. Today, financial success is more widely enjoyed among entrepreneurs, business and professional people who can use philanthropy in powerful, new ways to get things done outside the proverbial box. We are generous in Acadiana, but we don’t yet understand philanthropy as a tool to help a city like ours realize its full potential. It’s time to learn.