In Lafayette, a rosy economic view

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — It never gets old when companies announce they'll locate or expand in or around Lafayette.

But Gregg Gothreaux, Lafayette Economic Development Authority president and chief executive, said recent good news is a sign that more of the same successes are continuing from the turnaround in the local economy more than two years ago.

Gothreaux detailed abundant good news in his State of the Economy address recently. Retail sales were record-setting last year. Unemployment is low and companies — most recently Plains Exploration & Production Co., known as PXP — have announced major investments locally. It wasn't always so.

"We've had steady, stair-step increases over the last 30 years," he said, with few downturns since the oil market collapsed in the 1980s. "Rare exceptions have stood in the way."

One exception was the 2008 national economic downturn. At LEDA, Gothreaux said, evidence that the local economy would be affected came in October 2008, when apparel sales dipped. That was a harbinger of tighter times, he said.

Lafayette area businesses did not lose optimism in the face of enduring bad economic news, he said. But their optimism was guarded, at least in the short term.

Some cause for optimism was generated when the Mall of Acadiana in 2010 announced plans for renovations, which are ongoing. At the time, Gothreaux said, such mall renovations were rare and reflected an outside confidence that Lafayette's local economy would weather the national economic downturn better than communities elsewhere. In the second half of 2010, local retail figures rebounded, signaling better times ahead.

Retail sales, Gothreaux said, are "telling" indicators about how the economy is faring. Generally, he said, if the economy is struggling, homes sales dip first, then durable goods, then retail. But after the local retail rebound in the latter part of 2010, he said, confidence grew locally and the local economy reflected that.

"In some industries we never saw a significant drop," he said. Even when retail dipped, it was not bad. The medical industry — oil and gas and the medical industry fuel the economy here, he said — was steady. Real estate, even when sales slowed, never devalued like it did elsewhere in the country.

Gothreaux said that's because oil and gas and health care are a powerful economic combination. They support a strong retail market, which lures shoppers from far outside Lafayette. The community's cultural amenities, food and music, also lure people from great distances. All of which, he said, has safeguarded Lafayette's economy during difficult times.

By 2011, he said, local business leaders' confidence had grown. The economy had weathered the national recession and the 2010 drilling moratorium, and enthusiasm abounded.

Businesses openings and expansions followed, such as Lafayette General Medical Center, Stella Maris, Weatherford, Hoover Industries and PXP last week.

"It's a great time to be an entrepreneur in Acadiana," Gothreaux said. LEDA works with more than 1,000 businesses a year that seek information about the Lafayette area market, which extends well beyond the 238,000 people in the parish to the more than 600,000 people in the consolidated statistical area that includes Lafayette, St. Martin, St. Landry, Acadia, Vermilion and Iberia parishes.

Prospects for creating new businesses are bolstered by strong financial institutions that are eager to bankroll smart business plans and local business people who are willing to strike out on their own, he added. The major hurdle, he said, is in workforce talents: There are more skilled labor jobs than local people who have the necessary skills. That means skilled workers must be lured here or must return here if they left the area.

Still, Gothreaux said he expects a robust economy this year.

"We should finish strong. We'll watch the price of natural gas, and we need to watch the federal government with what it does in the medical area. but people are very optimistic, very aggressive.

"They should be."

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