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

COLUMN: Lafayette isn’t Abbeville or Austin, it’s a Big Town

aerial shot of downtown lafayette, la
A groundswell of collaboration and innovation takes off right here in Downtown Lafayette next week. Photo by Travis Gauthier

“Some people want Lafayette to be a big Abbeville. Others want it to be the next Austin.”

That’s what lobbyist and local political guru Tyron Picard said to me years ago, explaining why it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page over what we want our city to look like in the future.

His take struck a chord with me. I’ve been frustrated at times both by Lafayette’s small town mentality and by what can feel like delusions of grandeur. In that moment, I realized I didn’t want Lafayette to be a jumbo Abbeville or a pocket-sized Austin. I want Lafayette to be Lafayette — one of the best mid-sized cities in America to call home.

That’s why I’m so excited about Straight News Online’s inaugural Big Towns summit being held next week right here in Lafayette. It’s a forum for communities like ours to come together and learn from each other — to have meaningful conversations about what’s possible at their scale.

Part of the impetus for Big Towns was a recognition that the challenges and opportunities of mid-sized cities don’t often get the same attention as those of rural areas and big cities. And I think that represents an impediment to the future of not just Lafayette but the whole country.

The scale of Lafayette offers tremendous potential to address areas of pressing national concerns.

Like the adoption of innovation, not just in the use of technology but also in the development of processes and organizations. There's a need to drive more large-scale adoption of innovation in everything from education to healthcare to government to the economy.

But rural areas typically struggle to evolve because they lack the manpower and organizational capacity to implement and support major new initiatives. Big cities face big city problems that aren’t just bigger; they’re also often more complex with more diverse stakeholders, making it harder to build consensus.

Big towns, on the other hand, are in the Goldilocks zone when it comes to pursuing community-scale change. They’re big enough to have at least a handful of companies, nonprofits, and/or government agencies with some amount of operational and budgetary capacity. But they’re small enough where stakeholders can fit in a room to deal with more manageable problems.

Since moving with my wife to Lafayette in 2010 from Washington, D.C., scale is a key factor that has made us fall in love with living here. We’re city folks, so we’d never live in a city as small as Abbeville (no offense, your seafood is delicious). But we also don’t love the hassle of big city living with all of the traffic, crowds, crime and high cost of living.

In Lafayette, it seems like we get the best of all worlds: a city, a town and a suburb all rolled into one. We get access to culture and some diversity. We get to generally feel safe while navigating a city that’s relatively convenient. And we get to feel connected to a community of people. Because we’re small enough and interconnected enough to actually get to know each other in a small city.

And in a post-pandemic world, these quality-of-life benefits matter more. Rural areas are harder to live in than ever as access to quality healthcare, education and retail continues to deteriorate. But big cities are also harder and more expensive to live in.

Now that so many more people can take their jobs with them and choose where they want to live, Big Towns offer a value proposition that arguably can’t be beat when you factor in culture, community, and convenience. 

The next couple of decades are going to be defined by the rise of Big Towns — communities no longer striving to be the next Austin but instead the next Chattanooga, Tennessee, the next Greenville, South Carolina, the next Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or maybe even the next Lafayette, Louisiana.

There are only dozens of big cities. There are hundreds of smaller cities, all with their own unique combination of assets and aspirations, all with a role to play in defining what the next decades of modern American life can look like.

So even if you’re not able to attend next week’s Big Towns event (get tickets here), know that big things are happening. A groundswell of collaboration and innovation is taking off right here in Lafayette.

We can harness this energy, not just to have a great show next week, but to buy into the idea that Lafayette doesn’t have to be a super-sized Abbeville or a mini-me Austin. We just need to stay focused on how we can be the best Big Town.