When Lafayette’s newest retail complex — Ambassador Town Center — officially opens Wednesday, its developers and others will welcome new retailers to south-central Louisiana, and they’ll toast the 1,700 new jobs awarded to a workforce that badly needed them.
Developers Stirling Properties and CBL & Associates also will breathe a sigh of relief for the completion of a project that was hard to build. Record rainfall through 2015 and into 2016 pushed underground water tables up to just a few feet below the surface. The water made construction on 58 acres on the eastern quadrant at Kaliste Saloom Road and Ambassador Caffery Parkway difficult, and construction contractors raced to meet the March 2016 opening date that was announced in early 2015.
“This one’s been a challenge. … But we don’t miss completion dates,” said Townsend Underhill, senior vice president of Stirling Properties, the lead developer along with CBL & Associates of the $100 million-plus project.
Workers have completed almost all the construction in time for the retailers — who share 450,000 square feet of store space — to open their doors Wednesday, including Dick’s Sporting Goods/Field & Stream; BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse; Tao Japanese Cuisine; and Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. Two weeks ago, Nordstrom Rack opened early to big crowds despite stormy weather, and Thursday, the center’s anchor tenant, Costco Wholesale, and Marshalls/HomeGoods greeted robust crowds when they opened.
Underhill said Stirling and codeveloper CBL Properties, which also owns Acadiana Mall, decided to go in together rather than compete to develop the project whose final cost is still being tallied. Stirling Communications Director Jaime Burchfield said the project’s cost will come in between $100 million and $105 million.
The project was backed by former Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel and supported by City-Parish Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who began the job in January. Officials said construction of Ambassador Town Center brought in 2,200 construction jobs, and city-parish government and the Lafayette Parish school system will split $9 million derived from sales taxes.
To land the project, local government granted $11.5 million in property tax breaks to the developers to fund building Lake Farm Road behind the development, which should help somewhat to alleviate the already-congested traffic that will grow worse when the center is fully opened. The tax breaks also helped pay for utilities and drainage.
The tax breaks provoked some controversy. At a July 2014 meeting of the Lafayette Industrial Development Board, which OK’d the tax breaks favored by Durel and a majority of City-Parish Council members, some questioned why tax breaks were being granted to one development and not others. And Councilman William Theriot noted that the site of Ambassador Town Center was located near Lafayette’s tony River Ranch, home to high-wealth residents with the disposable income that brings in developers without the lure of tax breaks.
Despite the opposition, the breaks were granted and the project moved forward.
“It’s the most expensive retail project that’s ever been built in the Lafayette (area) market,” Underhill said last week.
Some of the retailers in the center are first-timers to Louisiana, Underhill said, and others have locations in the state but far from Lafayette. And they’re proven money-makers, he said: Costco Wholesale by itself will generate as much revenue as Acadiana Mall, which has more enclosed, air-conditioned square footage than all the stores in Ambassador Town Center combined. But the mall, he said, has much of its enclosed space devoted to walkways, and the sales per square foot at Ambassador Town Center will be among the highest in retail.
The center, however, is opening during the worst oil and gas downturn in decades. Thousands of jobs representing millions of dollars in income have vanished as energy’s woes have spread beyond oil employment and more jobs in Acadiana are lost every week. That reality diminishes the pool of money that could be spent at the center’s stores.
Gregg Gothreaux, who heads up the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, acknowledged that Ambassador Town Center is opening during a recessionary period for Lafayette and that business there could suffer.
But, he said, developers like Stirling and retailers like Nordstrom Rack and Costco plan for the long term by looking into data and investing for returns over decades.
Gothreaux also said other areas of the state such as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge are booming and that shoppers who live in those cities east and west of Lafayette will drive in to shop at stores that are not located anywhere else in Louisiana.
Underhill acknowledges the downturn but says its impact is likely to be short term.
“We’ve been developing properties for 41 years,” he said. “We’ve ridden a number of economic cycles over that time frame.”
Gothreaux said that for those who were looking for work, the retail center couldn’t open at a better time. He said he remembers a few infamous years in Lafayette — the mid-’80s — when the energy industry was at a severe dip and job losses, like now, affected thousands.
Then Fruit of the Loom opened apparel manufacturing plants across Louisiana. The jobs didn’t pay as much as the oil jobs, but it was something, Gothreaux said.
“The truth of the matter is, when those jobs mattered the most, like these (retail) jobs today, was when we were going through that downturn,” he said. “It was a check. It was something that could buy some gas, pay the mortgage, pay the rent. It could feed the family.”
Many of the new employees found work after applying at a career fair in January, where the demand for work was apparent when over 2,800 applicants with résumés in hand stood in lines for hours. The job fair at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, located near the intersection of Pinhook Road and Kaliste Saloom Road, tied up traffic for hours.