When discussing Lafayette growth, people assume we are an oil town. We are not; we are unique in Louisiana for our economic diversity.
There 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.
Second, consider this table, based on the decennial US Census data:
|Year||Parish||Growth||City||Growth||Significant Preceding Events|
|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|
|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|
|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|
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.
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.
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.)
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.