There were plenty of lessons to be learned last week for Acadiana leaders visiting Greenville, South Carolina, but perhaps the biggest surprise was what one city taught them about working as a region.
The 70 business and community leaders from Southwest Louisiana toured the city to study economic development growth, which has been evident in Greenville's dynamic metro core.
It was easy to find lessons to apply to Lafayette's downtown, the largest in the Acadiana area. But the Louisiana delegation represented all nine parishes of One Acadiana's service area, not just Lafayette.
"I really, for the first time in a long time, heard a very, very specific call to action that the metro center can be a regional center," said Anne Falgout, executive director of the Vermilion Economic Development Alliance. "I really saw the benefits of a big city center revitalization on the region."
That was most apparent when Falgout and the group toured the only BMW manufacturing center in the United States, located right outside of Greenville in Spartanburg. Since 1992, the plant has produced more than 4.5 million BMWs and has seen an investment of $10.3 million.
The German company came to the 1,000-acre site with a rail system and port nearby, not downtown. But the employees live and work and shop around there, and a thriving downtown helps to attract more workers and potential employers.
"I got this real sense of we're all part of this team," Falgout said. "I saw a specific call for us to really care about what is going on in downtown Lafayette and the impact of recruiting businesses to downtown to those of us 30 minutes away."
So the next steps for the Acadiana visitors include communicating parish to parish and organization to organization about projects, picking priorities to focus on as a group, and banding together until those get done. Rinse and repeat.
"We do not need to make more plans, but simply narrowly focus on a few achievable goals already on the table and make them happen," said Steven Hebert, CEO of Billeaud Companies and co-chair of the leadership exchange trip. "It’s time for implementation. Developers, landowners, city-parish government need to work together and find solutions."
Communication will be vital to choosing priorities, leaders said.
"Lafayette should know what Crowley's doing and Opelousas," Youngsville City Councilman Ken Stansbury said as an example.
He was one of three elected officials on the trip, and he hopes to engage more from across Acadiana to work together as a region. He calls it breaking down silos, "so we can have consensus on where we're all going."
It's the idea that "my community needs your community to be successful," Falgout explained.
Stansbury echoed that.
"Even though I'm in Youngsville, the city of Lafayette has value," he said as an example. "If it is successful, I'm successful."
This isn't to say there is no collaboration now in Acadiana, but rather that this is an opportunity to build on partnerships and alliances like One Acadiana and the St. Landry Parish Economic Development, which manages four boards and often works outside of the parish.
"The reality is most people can't tell you where Lafayette Parish ends and St. Landry begins when they're driving down I-49, and I don't think they care," Rodier said.
"The stronger we get as a region, the more competitive we'll be," he continued. "If we don't come together and represent as a whole, we never will be as competitive as we should be."
Hebert said a report will be produced from the trip with findings and action items to be taken up by appropriate committees within One Acadiana, related to stakeholders across the region and offered up as policy initiatives.
"We all know Acadiana is one of the most unique cultural enclaves in the world, and we need to focus on celebrating it and sharing our story with the world," said Amy Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the Acadia Parish Chamber of Commerce. "We need to be more intentional about our vision for Acadiana, be vocal, and be willing to spend a few extra dollars to make something great."
The experiences shared in Greenville last week gave Thibodeaux and others more inspiration to move forward together as a region.
Hebert pointed out that just 15 to 20 years ago, "Greenville was nowhere near the impressive community it is today," going from a handful of restaurants downtown to nearly 200. The same goes for residences, the number of hotels and green space downtown.
"There was obviously plenty of people on the same page, working together," he said. "We can get this done. It gives me hope."