Cover Story

Who Are We?

by Walter Pierce

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Census data paint a picture of Lafayette as a more ethnically diverse community, and one that has addressed suburban sprawl by more or less embracing it. By Walter Pierce

In February 2004 newly minted City-Parish President Joey Durel delivered his first State of the Parish address as part of The Independent Weekly Lecture Series. Durel's inaugural address was also our first year publishing The Ind. Today, Wednesday, Feb. 16, the parish's chief executive delivers his eighth SOTP.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Census data paint a picture of Lafayette as a more ethnically diverse community, and one that has addressed suburban sprawl by more or less embracing it. By Walter Pierce

In February 2004 newly minted City-Parish President Joey Durel delivered his first State of the Parish address as part of The Independent Weekly Lecture Series. Durel's inaugural address was also our first year publishing The Ind. Today, Wednesday, Feb. 16, the parish's chief executive delivers his eighth SOTP.

That's the better part of the last decade. And while Durel will touch on topics like Lafayette's unemployment rate and other economic issues while looking at initiatives accomplished and others still to be done, much of his address will focus on Lafayette's future - where we're headed, what our goals are, what we want to be as a community in five, 10 years.

But a state of the parish address can't fully address who we are. That's where the U.S. Census Bureau comes in. This month the bureau began releasing figures from the 2010 census - more data like median household income and age distribution will trickle in over the next few weeks. But we're already getting a clear picture of what has transpired since the last census in 2000.

What jumps immediately off the spreadsheet is Lafayette Parish's robust growth over the last decade: More than 31,000 residents either moved into or were born into the parish since 2000, raising our total population from 190,296 in 2000 to 221,578 in 2010. That's a 16 percent increase in population - the seventh best percentage growth in the state behind Ascension (+40 percent), Livingston (+39), St. Tammany (+22), Bossier (+19), Grant (+19) and Tangipahoa (+20).

Ranking growth by sheer volume, Lafayette's was the third-best during the 2000-2010 period, behind only St. Tammany (+42,472 residents) and Livingston (+36,212), both of which grew in large part through white flight from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, respectively, with St. Tammany also gaining through migration from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes following Hurricane Katrina. That leaves Lafayette, it can be fairly argued, as the Louisiana parish that grew more by virtue of its economic engine.

The census data also show Lafayette becoming more racially diverse, both within the city and the parish as a whole. The white population in the city of Lafayette is 76,937. That's a net gain of just 97 souls, or 0.1 percent, since 2000. The city's black population increased by 5,963 (+18.9 percent), while the Asian population grew by 589 (+37 percent). By far the largest percentage growth - this will be little surprise to those who have noticed the Latino grocery stores and bilingual signs popping up around town - was among Hispanics: 115.9 percent growth, or an additional 2,432 people.

"The city of Lafayette only grew by 97 white people? That's all? Wow," says Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux, whose office tracks residential and commercial growth patterns in the parish but doesn't keep tabs on ethnicity.

"Lafayette's always been pretty rich from a diversity standpoint," observes demographer and former Lafayette Parish School Board member Mike Hefner. "I think we have something like 65 languages that are represented in the Lafayette Parish School System. As far as the growth in Asian and Hispanic, it's really not surprising. I think that's been certainly a trend - I've seen it in the school system and I've seen it in the general population now for several years. I think part of it is that Lafayette Parish has fared fairly well economically; people are coming here because there are jobs to be had. I think that's one reason why we're maybe cannibalizing some neighboring parishes like St. Landry. I think some of those folks who are able to move are moving to where there are more job opportunities, which is going to be in the Lafayette area."

Hispanic gains in the municipalities also offer some insight into where the Latino population is living - in the north and west parts of the parish. Carencro's percentage gain in Hispanic population over the last decade was roughly 470 percent. Scott's comes in at about 200. The Hispanic population in Duson, the western-most town in the parish, grew by a whopping 1,683 percent.

These figures comport with observation: The Cameron-Bertrand-Ambassador corridor in northwest Lafayette has become home to several Hispanic groceries and restaurants where Spanish is exclusively spoken. One of our fave Mexican restaurants in Lafayette, El Portrillo, is on Moss Street in north Lafayette. Communicating with the staff can be difficult, but the shrimp quesadilla es muy bueno.

The Ind has also learned from a source that a company that distributes products to local grocery stores is studying the buying habits of customers at one Lafayette Hispanic market - a converted Dollar General store on north Ambassador - in hopes of capitalizing on the Latino community.

Growth patterns in southeast Lafayette Parish - and unrelenting traffic congestion -
show that we remain subject to sprawl.

With a charter commission holding weekly meetings ahead of an April 20 deadline for making a recommendation about future governance in Lafayette Parish - Do we dissolve consolidated government and return to separate city and parish governments or just tweak the existing charter? - it's no secret that there is angst in the city of Lafayette. We fear losing our political clout, and, digging into the finer-grained data, some find cause for concern.

The census data show what we long ago realized: southeastern Lafayette Parish is booming while the city of Lafayette and the western cities of Scott and Duson have shown modest to anemic growth. Lafayette added roughly 8,600 people in the decade, from 112,026 to 120,623, for a 7.7 percent population increase. The percentages are even more stagnant in Scott (+2.7 percent) and Duson (+2 percent).

If the parish's overall growth was 16 percent yet big dog Lafayette grew only 7 percent, where's the boom? Look to the south: Broussard grew more than 26 percent over the decade while Youngsville grew an astounding 82.3 percent.

Moreover, the city of Lafayette's population as a percentage of the overall population of the parish has steadily fallen over the last two decades. In 1990, Lafayette was 62 percent of the parish. By 2000 it had fallen to 58 percent and stands now at 54.4 - an almost 4 percent drop every decade.

A supporter of deconsolidation who has publicly worried about Lafayette being on the same trajectory toward inner-city decay that long ago gripped New Orleans and is taking hold in Baton Rouge, Comeaux, the tax assessor, thinks these numbers and others paint a bleak picture for the city's future.

"The city's population versus the total parish is 54.4 percent. The number of registered voters in the city is 56.6 percent. If you have 56 percent that are registered voters, but it only counts for 54 percent of the parish, that means you have an old population," Comeaux says, divining from the numbers a demographic shift, with young families choosing to abandon Lafayette in favor of the unincorporated parish and smaller towns.

"I think we should be concerned about it to the standpoint that we're not having the rebirth of the city like some people were hoping was going to happen, where young couples would come back in and raise families in the city," adds Comeaux. "If that trend keeps going what you're going to end up with in the city is a lot of older folks, with all the young people out in the unincorporated areas or the other cities. What does that spell in the long term?"

But Hefner, who has been providing pro bono demographic services to the parish as it gets ready to redraw the council and school board districts, is more sanguine than the tax man. Hefner believes that population declines in Lafayette over the last two decades will slow as city neighborhoods go through what he characterizes as a typical life cycle: Families buy houses and raise children. The children grow up and move away.

The parents grow old and sell their houses to young families who raise children. And so on.

And Hefner isn't convinced, short of seeing the census data on age distribution that hasn't been released yet, that the disparity in Lafayette's percentage of total population versus voting population indicates the city is growing old.

"What I've noticed with my own campaigns [for school board] is, a lot people who have recently moved, particularly into subdivisions - the younger folks - they haven't taken the time to go register to vote," he observes. "I just don't think they're as active voters because they have so much other stuff taking up their time. They haven't gotten settled in yet to where they're focusing on the political process."

But the population explosion in south Lafayette Parish is undeniable, and both Hefner and Comeaux agree that it is stressing parish infrastructure.

"What it boils down to is, we're not becoming a green community," Comeaux says. "Because with people moving farther and farther away from the services and the amenities like the museums and the performance venues, it means more travel. We're not becoming greener; we're becoming dirtier as a matter of fact, because we're pushing farther and farther out, and you have to have more roads, and it's just going to be costly to the infrastructure."

Rafael Garcia, a native of Cuba and owner of Café Habana City,
represents Lafayette's burgeoning Latino population.

"Try getting to your house in Youngsville - it's horrible, it's a 40-minute commute to get from the south side of Lafayette to the Youngsville area, particularly with the road construction," Hefner adds. "You can easily see that in the stress it's putting on the infrastructure. And that's a problem we've had with planning in the community: We're always catching up, we're never moving ahead. We're never planning ahead. The infrastructure is not keeping up with the housing patterns over here, the commuting patterns, no question about it."

But Hefner remains optimistic that Lafayette's commuter and population trends will be answered by economics.

"I think that difference is going to start slowing down," he says. "If fuel prices continue to rise, people are not going to be moving into the outer areas; they'll actually be looking to moving in closer to where the jobs are."