‘Good, not great’: How can Lafayette put it all together?

Lafayette is at a tipping point, observed Quint Studer, featured speaker for One Acadiana’s Vibrant Community Summit last week. Things aren’t so bad here, he said, ticking through the findings of a short survey compiled ahead of his appearance. Lafayette was perfectly average.

Average can be dangerous, however. Quoting another business guru, Studer warned: Good is the enemy of great.

Assessments like these are a familiar hand-wringing for Lafayette leadership. Studer is the latest in a short run of city-building experts who have admonished Lafayette for underachieving. Our community has all the makings of a boomtown: an enviable culture, a university, a spunky downtown and homegrown wealth. What Lafayette needs is a way to put it altogether. Lafayette has choices, Studer said, prowling the Rock ’N’ Bowl stage Friday morning. Other communities don't.

Choice paralysis might explain the anxiety registered in an informal survey run by the Studer Community Institute ahead of his visit. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they were “pessimistic” on the Lafayette community assessment, the worst score that he’s seen, save Pensacola, Studer’s adopted hometown and the prototype for his approach to community building. Most towns register pessimism percentages in the 20s.

“I was happy because [Pensacola] always led the world in pessimism,” he joked in a post-summit interview. “You guys beat us by two points.”

Pessimism, in his view, is an obstacle to progress. Getting pessimists on board for big change can be challenging. But he nevertheless celebrated the role of self-criticism, provided it’s leavened with attention on what’s going right. “Creative tension” is an essential fuel for growth, he said, urging on the dozens of business leaders and advocates attending the summit.

He challenged Lafayette’s homespun story about its magnetism. People don’t leave Lafayette, the saying goes. Our culture is too unique, our people too welcoming. Studer begged to differ. Were that true, he reasoned, Lafayette’s population would be explosive, not flat.

“I try to be nice,” he said in a post-summit interview, recounting a conversation with a Lafayette local who trotted out the retention anecdote. “So I said, ‘How’s your population, is it growing quite quickly here?’”

“Not really,” was the reply. “Well then your statement’s not quite accurate,” he told the resident.

Census estimates show metro Lafayette shrinking since 2016. (Data from the 2020 census will be ready later this year.) Louisiana overall is an infamous exporter of talent, despite billions spent on economic incentives to attract outside investment. Between 2010 and 2019, the Lafayette MSA grew 4.8%, short of the U.S. average. The population peaked in 2016 at 490,877 and receded, settling in at 489,207 ahead of the pandemic.

It could be worse. Houma flatlined in the same span. But it could also be better. Pensacola grew 12%. Studer’s broader point, however, is that good isn’t good enough. Backsliding is a constant threat, and there is ample reason to fear it locally. Not that long ago, Lafayette led the nation in job losses, and participation in the labor force has not yet recovered from its collapse several years ago. New industries are ascendent — healthcare, for instance, is primed with massive recent investments. But a transition away from the fossil fuel industry will continue to be painful for the region.

What should we do about it? The Studer answer should sound familiar: Invest in a vibrant downtown and prosperity should follow. To that end, he put redevelopment of the old federal courthouse in the spotlight, elevating the 80-unit residential project as an act of heroism on the part of developer E.J. Krampe.

He talked a lot about the federal courthouse, layering on both accolades and putting the stakes in focus. Indeed, the courthouse’s vacancy has been an albatross around Downtown’s neck since the early 2000s. The Urban Land Institute, which visited in 2017, called it Lafayette’s “monument of indecision.” While construction is behind schedule, the project is no less a barometer. Should the redevelopment succeed, Studer said, it will be transformative, and Krampe ought to be praised for it.

“How many people have written him a thank you note? You’ve got to recognize and reward people who are doing that,” Studer said.

Downtown investment is a means to an end, however. Studer reiterated conventional wisdom that capital follows talent and talent follows place. Prosperity should offer opportunity for everyone, not just the gold-collar talent flocking to a dynamic downtown. Studer has advocated for early childhood education, small business development programs and reckoning with racial injustice.

Studer himself is the tip of the spear in Pensacola. He made a fortune as a healthcare consultant and put the money to work revitalizing the panhandle capital’s moribund Downtown. He’s a paragon of activist wealth, but he’s circumspect about the role of philanthropy in that effort, and cynical about the role of government. Studer doesn’t beckon selflessness, just tolerance of smaller returns.

He told a group of oilmen in Odessa, Texas, to prepare for 2% returns on their community investments, a haul dwarfed by what they could get through other plays. If it gave their children and grandchildren a community to be proud of, Studer said, it was well worth it.

His remarks during the summit were unmistakably aimed at what economist Loren Scott recently called Lafayette’s Big Six — Acadian Companies, Stuller, CGI, LHC Group, SCP Health and Waitr. His visit was a call to arms to pent-up millions to get in the game. He met with several captains of industry for dinner Thursday and pushed that message forward.

There was willingness among the group to step up, he reported, but a hesitancy about where to start. Coaxing them into action takes gratitude, he said, and brushed aside skepticism about whether appreciation is what’s sorely lacking.

“I think they want to be off the sidelines, but nobody’s ever had that conversation with them,” he said. “I’ve had a number of conversations in the last 36 hours; they want to be off the sidelines. Not all of them, but some of them. … But you sorta got to grab their heart.”

Wealth has long been the fuel for successful cities. And Lafayette, called the home of a thousand millionaires by the New York Times in 1981, doesn’t lack it. As Studer pointed out, the area today has a glut of national and international corporations that have stayed home and remain major employers. Deployed smartly, Lafayette’s local wealth could be transformative.

Smartly is the key. And for Studer that means following the data. For 15 years, Studer’s institute has tracked 17 data points on a community dashboard to keep tabs on progress, and it annually produces community surveys. What gets measured gets fixed, goes the Studer mantra. At the summit’s close, One Acadiana CEO Troy Wayman committed to developing and maintaining a similar dashboard for the local region.

As Studer pointed out, measurement can force confrontations with uncomfortable truths. Even trying to be objective can be controversial. In Pensacola, Studer pushed to measure perceptions of racism, forcing a quantified reckoning with entrenched racism in the region. The results were eye-opening, he said, and smoked out plenty of pushback.

But pushback and setbacks are part of the game. In his short time in Lafayette, Studer saw a community struggling to get over an aversion to controversy. He added slides to his presentation challenging leaders to embrace character over comfort. A willingness to risk failure is what it takes to break out of a complacent orbit.

“The problem is we’re trying to be undefeated,” he said. “You’re not going to be undefeated.”