The Road to 2010

by Jeremy Alford

Optimists are still expecting New Orleans' losses to be gains for Lafayette and Baton Rouge following the next census, but additional legislative seats won't guarantee a political coup for either locale.

Gregory Rigamer of New Orleans-based consulting firm GCR and Associates predicts the Crescent City's population to peak at roughly 350,000 by the time the U.S. Census releases its official population estimates in 2010 ' about 23 percent less than what the Crescent City enjoyed in the month prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That percentage is spread out all around the state and country, but no other municipality has done more to hype its growth from the diaspora than Baton Rouge.

Rebuilding hadn't even kicked off yet two years ago when politicos and pundits started predicting a power shift to the Capital City. Since a large majority of evacuees landed in the city ' various surveys peg the increase at 100,000, with a present population possibly nearing 325,000 ' Red Stick appears poised to gain more seats in the state Legislature. Now interests are coalescing in the sister cities to either defend turf or take advantage of the situation.

Sometimes lost in the tit-for-tat, however, is Acadiana, which is likewise positioned to gain seats following the next census, largely in the area that hugs I-10 around Lafayette and New Iberia. While evacuees and businesses that landed in the region following the 2005 storms that battered both ends of Louisiana's coastline are surely an indicator, the Cajun cities were already experiencing phenomenal growth pre-Katrina. While other major metro areas were suffering from outmigration, Lafayette was attracting new residents and serious investments.

In fact, Lafayette was growing in 2000 when no other Louisiana city was. Last year, it practically led the entire nation in growth, from wages and jobs to households. The Acadiana region enjoyed a 5 percent surge in overall population in related reports, spiking somewhere around 537,947 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Moreover, of Louisiana's top 50 cities for raw population gain last year, a dozen were located in Acadiana.

The Big Easy cannot tout such figures. It will show a decrease in population after the 2010 census, but the beneficiaries are largely unknown ' and Orleans isn't ready to give up without a fight.

Among others, Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin argues that people are moving back at a quicker pace than is generally accepted, based partly on so-called mailbox and utility counts, which may or may not be used in the coming census. The problem with this methodology is simple: just because someone is receiving mail or energy doesn't mean they're living in the city.

Shreveport demographer and political analyst Elliot Stonecipher says New Orleans officials are fighting back aggressively by tracking these unconventional counts. There's also the question of what property owners plan to do in the coming years ' stay or sell ' as Louisiana still suffers from an outmigration trend that started long before Katrina. "In any case, the stage is certainly set for New Orleans officials to challenge the census with any reported population significantly lower," Stonecipher says. "When cities lose population, they kick and scream and holler and challenge. We've seen northern cities like Shreveport do it and sometimes they're successful."

The Capitol City, meanwhile, is positioning itself just as aggressively for the gains. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has converted many of its initiatives into regional approaches and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation is spending as much as $1 million to brand and promote the I-10/I-12 region. A new magazine, bankrolled by The Baton Rouge Business Report's parent company, hopes to piggyback on that initiative. There's an undercurrent running through all of these initiatives to help Baton Rouge become the locus of power in Louisiana.

Acadiana factors into the I-10/I-12 strategy as well, Stonecipher says. "Lafayette has been growing consistently faster than most other areas of the state and that population is compressed around the I-10 area," he says. "The parts of Acadiana around Lafayette and New Iberia are going to be real growth stories and they could be ready to gain more seats in the Legislature."

Next summer, Louisiana will receive its official intermediate estimates for the period through July of this year, which should offer a decent precursor of what's to come. "Things in New Orleans are turning around and people appear to be spending money," says West Bank Rep. Jim Tucker of Terrytown, chair of the GOP Caucus. "I don't think we'll be down as far as originally thought, but there's little doubt that New Orleans will be down and Baton Rouge will be up. As far as how that plays out, we'll just have to wait."