Economic Diversity in Lafayette

When discussing Lafayette growth, people assume we are an oil town.  We are not; we are unique in Louisiana for our economic diversity.

Oil Town?

AcadianVillage 300There are various ways to look at Lafayette growth.  For instance, the petroleum industry is a critical component of Lafayette’s local economy and infrastructure. But there is a misconception that Lafayette is an ‘Oil Town’. When we examine the data, however, it emerges that oil and gas are not the largest factors in Lafayette’s growth.

People often forget that in the 1970’s, Lake Charles was larger than Lafayette. Some years ago, I was surprised when friends in Lake Charles attributed Lafayette growth to the petroleum industry:  we are just an oil town.  It suggests that our success is just luck.

Since that time, I have repeatedly run into this misconception, in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and even Houston.  It’s simply not true.  First of all, consider how often Lafayette shows up on regional and national lists and rankings for innovation, progressiveness, technology, and arts & culture, things beyond the oil industry.  Those seem to suggest that we are more than a one-trick pony.

Lafayette Growth

Second, consider this table, based on the decennial US Census data:

Year Parish Growth City Growth Significant Preceding Events
1830 5,653
1840 7,841 39% 1836: Lafayette becomes The Hub City; Depression of 1837-1844
1850 6,720 -14% 1844: Vermilion Parish created from Lafayette Parish
1860 9,003 33%
1870 10,888 21% 777 1861: Civil War starts
1880 13,285 22% 815 5%  Depression of the 1870’s
1890 15,966 20% 2,106 158% 1883: 1st train through Lafayette
1900 22,825 43% 3,314 57% 1897: LUS Created; Depression of the 1890’s
1910 28,733 26% 6,392 93% 1901: UL opens
1920 28,858 0.4% 7,855 23% 1917: US enters WW I
1930 38,827 35% 14,635 86% 1927 Flood, Lafayette is high ground
1940 43,941 13% 19,210 31% The Great Depression
1950 57,743 31% 33,541 75% 1941: Japan bombs Pearl Harbor
1960 84,656 47% 40,400 20% 1952: Oil Center Founded
1970 111,745 32% 68,908 71%
1980 150,017 34% 81,961 19% 1973: Oil Boom begins,
AND Interstate 10 opens
1990 164,762 10% 94,440 15% 1980’s: Oil Bust begins
2000 210,988 28% 110,257 17%
2010 221,578 16% 120,623 8%

Rapid Growth

The first thing to note, is that Lafayette Parish and the City of Lafayette have grown every decade since our inception, with the lone exception of the 1850 Census after 85% of the parish was carved off to create Vermilion Parish.  Other than that, through the Civil War, both World Wars, repeated Depressions– and very importantly here, through the Oil Bust– demonstrate Lafayette growth.

Rapid Growth.

Oil Boom, Oil Bust

First, compare the impact of the Oil Boom in the 1980 Census.  The growth looks impressive, but compare it to Lafayette growth in other decades.  For the Parish, it was only the fifth-largest decade in our history.

As for the city?  Its growth during that time was at the median.  Even that misses the point, however.  The 19% in Lafayette growth for that decade is is far below the average growth rate of 48%.

Then consider that the Oil Boom occurred in the same decade that I-10 opened.  Transportation is a great spur to growth, look at what impact the railroad produced in he 1890 census, with an incredible 158% Lafayette growth.  Now that’s a Boom Town.  The point is, much of Lafayette’s growth in the 1970’s came from I-10 and related infrastructure development, in addition to the Oil Boom.

As for the Oil Bust, Lafayette continued to grow through the petroleum downturn.  Granted, the growth was slower than many other decades; but it was still a growth rate that many cities would be quite happy to have.

Economic Diversity

So where does Lafayette’s growth come from?  Demographer Elliot Stonecipher gives a fascinating analysis of the growth of Louisiana and various cities in the state.  His conclusion is that over the past few years, Lafayette is the only one of two Louisiana cities that have grown rapidly for reasons other than white flight, and it is the only one that has grown because of a diversified economy.

This is one example of the power of diversity, which is key to our discussions here.

(NB:  this is an revision & update of an article that I originally wrote for ULToday.com.)


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Picture courtesy of Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission.  There is a wry irony in this portrayal of Acadiana:  the aggressive growth of Lafayette and the region contradict our popular image of rustic tranquility.

2 Comments

  1. Nancy Broussard

    Your timeline is a bit off, leaves out some important notes.

    The Oil Bust that nearly cleaned our clocks began at the end of 1982, relenting briefly around 1984, and growing deeper and wider in 1985 and 1986. My family lost a business in August of 1985; we were in the ‘oil industry’ and did not know it. When one of the majors strings a service company out 120 days, and the service company is pushing 120 days with you, you can’t pay your vendors. It’s useless for your client to try to collect from the major, because they’ll never do business together again. The oil company will find another hungry vendor.

    My husband started a new business, I got a slave-wage job in tourism. Hotel occupancy was of as much as 95% in early 1986. The pipe salesmen didn’t stop overnight anymore. The region latched on to its culture and capitalized on the attraction it always was. Festival International was born at this time.

    What happened between the recovery, which began in or around 1991-2, and 2015, when the Second Great Oil Bust became evident?

    • Bookscrounger

      Thanks, Nancy.

      I agree with you. The oil bust was bad for a lot of people. My point wasn’t that people weren’t affected, it’s simply that Lafayette continued to grow, despite the pain.

      I’ve changed the date to ‘1980’s’ from 1984; different people tag the beginning of the oil bust at different times.

      Thanks again.

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