Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: New Heymann Center location should prioritize impact over convenience

The Heymann Center, with a puddle in the foreground.
Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

It looks like Lafayette’s getting a new performing arts center. After years of talking about replacing the Heymann Center, the project has legs and, it appears, a location.

There seems to be consensus on what we’re going to build, basically a new modern Heymann Center-sized facility. And how we’re going to pay for the $100+ million complex: a mix of state capital outlay, maybe a new temporary 1-cent city sales tax, and philanthropic giving.

Right now, the betting favorite for where it will go is UL’s Research Park, located across the street from the Cajundome. That’s because a study commissioned by LEDA and conducted by CSL International said UL’s land is the easiest place to put it.

Consultants came to that conclusion after meeting with 80 stakeholders and scoring the site criteria for seven potential sites and ranking them. Here are those results:

Table of site criteria compiled by LEDA

Now, this isn’t an analysis of the best location. It’s an analysis of the most feasible. And that perspective has a built-in bias in favor of greenfield sites like the UL Research Park, which has lots of vacant land.

When it comes to making this generational investment in our community, though, our focus shouldn’t be on what’s easiest but what will have the greatest impact. And for my money, impact would mean the site that best does these three things:

  • Catalyzes investment in private development
  • Generates new local tax revenue
  • Showcases the vibrancy of our community

On all three of these fronts, the Research Park underwhelms.

All that land is owned by UL, which means a public university will play private developer. Other than student housing, UL does not yet have a proven track record of developing commercial properties, which is essential for maximizing the massive investment represented by the performing arts center. UL’s Master Plan, released way back in 2014, has a defined vision for developing the research property, but to date little progress has been made.

Plus, property that UL still owns after it’s developed won’t generate any additional property tax revenue for local government because UL doesn’t pay property taxes. So for every $100 million of follow-on development around this performing arts center, Lafayette’s schools, city and parish government, and sheriff would lose out on roughly $1 million in additional tax revenue had the investment gone elsewhere.

And I just don’t think this location really showcases the best Lafayette has to offer. Especially not when comparing a bare piece of ground in the UL Research Park to the cultural richness of the runner up in these rankings: Downtown at the old IberiaBank Tower (now First Horizon).

Locating performing arts centers in downtown areas is pretty much standard operating procedure for cities nowadays. It’s exactly what Greenville, S.C., did with the Peace Center, which Acadiana leaders toured in recent years to learn from their success. And five of the eight comparable facilities CSL cited in its report are located in downtowns, with the remaining three having unique reasons that they’re not located in downtowns. Like being located in a suburban community without a downtown or being located between the two cities that supported its creation.

Much of the land adjacent to the Downtown location is privately owned. So any development that happens there will increase total assessed property values, helping to increase tax revenues that are collected to fund schools and roads and drainage and public safety without having to raise taxes. Taking advantage of existing infrastructure is advice Lafayette gets often and routinely seems to ignore.

Nowhere in Lafayette is better suited to showcase our cultural vibrancy than Downtown. Where there are already dozens of established local restaurants, art galleries, local retailers, museums and festivals. There’s also arguably nowhere more visible than the bank tower site given its location on a major street on the edge of Downtown near what will eventually become I-49.

Don’t just take my word for these observations. The consultant’s own site criteria related to these impacts tell a similar story.

Site CriteriaUL Research ParkDowntown at IberiaBank
(now First Horizon)
Attractiveness of Site45
Compatibility of Adjacent Uses45
Surrounding Development Potential55
Walkability35
Visibility35
Site criteria excerpted from LEDA's study

CSL’s report doesn’t consider the relative impact of these sites. It limits discussion of bang for the buck to a high level analysis of economic and fiscal impacts. But that analysis assumes that the new center will be located in the UL Research Park. There is no comparative analysis of return on investment, a glaring omission when you’re talking about a $100 million project.

And it completely ignores the issue of property taxes as it relates to the development of surrounding land. Instead focusing on sales and hotel taxes, which are projected to produce a couple hundred grand a year. Meanwhile, the opportunity lost in property tax revenue from surrounding developments in the UL Research Park vs. Downtown could be worth millions of dollars every year.

There’s no doubt that building the center Downtown would be harder and more expensive. That’s inevitably the case when you’re talking about infill development in an urban environment vs. building on open land. It’s a key reason Lafayette has grown outward and not upward.

But investing this $100+ million in our existing cultural hub Downtown could make a much greater impact on our economy and our quality of life. We know this because of comparable examples CSL includes in its own report.

The Peace Center, for example, catalyzed the redevelopment of Downtown Greenville, S.C. Because that project was located in a downtown environment, market forces were free to spur enormous follow-on investment in hotels, housing, retail and restaurants that has totally transformed Greenville’s Downtown district, helping to power decades of prosperity in that region.

Clearly locating this facility at the UL Research Park would be great for UL and its aspirations to finally develop all of that land. But that doesn’t mean this location will make the greatest impact on Lafayette as a whole, especially since that impact will be reliant entirely on UL’s ability to develop land in a way that it’s never done before. And assuming city taxpayers will bear direct costs to replace a facility the city currently owns, generating a return on Lafayette’s investment is essential.

This is a once-in-a-generation decision we’re making here that will impact at least the next 50 years of Lafayette’s development. The prudent choice isn’t the path of least resistance. We owe it to our future to make this choice based on what will have the most impact.