Leadership requires courage. Culture requires participation and investment. These values are embedded in the DNA of Forward Lafayette. And the events of the last month have led us to reflect on how Lafayette finds itself wrestling with some very difficult questions that again require courage, investment, and participation.
This past weekend marked the 31st year of the Festival Internationale de Louisiane in our community, and there may be no better symbol of our culture and leadership than our annual festival. Festival was born in 1987 when our community was facing an economic crisis, the downtown district was deteriorating, and Lafayette needed a vision for the future. In response to these headwinds, leaders in our community created a music, arts, and cultural festival that today is the largest international music festival in the US, brings more than 300,000 guests to Lafayette every year, and has an estimated economic impact of $49M annually. Just as much as Festival is about our shared Cajun and Creole heritage, it’s also about the unique culture of being a community that is willing to invest and take risks in order to move forward.
But an economic crisis put Festival at risk this year. Last November, Festival had lost all of its corporate sponsors and could not make ends meet. As much as we work to diversify our economy, Festival funding was just one more example of how tied we still are to the swings of the oil and gas economy. Thanks to the leadership of Scott Feehan and an incredible group of volunteers, Festival made a strong rallying cry for help. Festival launched the #LetsOwnTheMoment branding campaign to raise awareness, and also created a Community Foundation Fund to seed much needed investment for Festival’s ongoing financial sustainability. In the end, Festival was another success for its 31st year, but that success was punctuated by the loss of the Heritage stage and the growing awareness that only 10% of Festival goers contribute funding to support Festival. We have to do better.
And on Festival Saturday, approximately 25,000 of us entered the polling booth and weighed in on three millage renewals, a sales tax to fund investment in our public schools, and a 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal judicial race. Two of the millage renewals failed—a rarity—creating a $10M budgetary shortfall for our already strapped parish budget. The school tax—estimated to generate more than $194 million over 10 years to fund the replacement of 248 temporary classrooms—failed by 18 percentage points. Most point to the outside influence of anonymous political PACs for tipping the scale over on this vote. Others suggest that the drubbing was due to our inability to stand up for a stronger public policy embracing a property tax. But either way, in case you haven’t done the math, that’s a whopping 17% of the electorate that turned out to vote. We have to do better.
The low turnout at the polls that saw LCG lose $10M in budget and our schools sentenced to more temporary buildings becoming permanent, is something we need to look in the mirror on. This low voter turnout is only out matched by the painfully low percentage of Festival goers who contribute to keeping Festival free. 17% and 10%. Is this complacency? Are we jaded as a community? Did we all just have “better things to do” than weigh in on local government services and public education priorities? Whatever happened to that 1987 Lafayette culture that so well demonstrated our willingness to invest and take risks in order to move forward? How do we energize the remaining 83% to get out to vote and have their voices heard? How do we get the remaining 90% to vote with their pocket books and enable Festival to continue to function and possibly save the Heritage stage next year? The past two weeks lead to so many questions. We can either address them or let them echo and fade as time passes.
The answers start with each of us. We need to be the proverbial man or woman in the arena. We need to be the voice in the room that speaks up. It’s virtually guaranteed there are others in that same “room” with the same doubts and questions you have. Forward Lafayette was created out of a movement to fight against tearing something out of our community. It is easy to criticize government. It is easy to lead anonymous battles against taxes that fund necessary civic services. It is infinitely easier to destroy rather than to create. It’s much harder to build.
Leadership requires courage. Culture requires participation and investment. Here is the empty space left from Scene Heritage at Festival International.
Let’s be the community that fills this space. Whether it be at Festival, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, or in the voting booth. Let’s be courageous. Let’s participate and invest. Let’s build and create. It’s the only way we move forward, and it starts with you.