Remember early in the year before the coronavirus came and wrecked seemingly everything connected to the Acadiana economy? There was a good bit of optimism at the start of 2020.
And for good reason.
Data from 2019 showed the region took another solid step toward recovery from the oil market crash in 2015 and 2016. The jobs numbers continued to rise, retail sales were approaching the high water mark of 2014 and home sales were up.
But COVID-19 slammed the brakes on most of that progress.
Retail took a large hit in the first months of the pandemic, as did the hospitality industry, while the oil and gas sector took a major hit while only recovering slightly.
But by the time fall arrived, the worst was behind us in Acadiana. Thanks to an influx of people following two hurricanes, retail sales surged in Lafayette Parish and hotels had their best months of the year. The real estate market sizzled.
And Amazon will soon employ at least 500 people in Carencro.
Here are the top five business stories in Acadiana in 2020:
1. Economy takes hit from COVID-19. The headlines were sobering: One in five people employed prior to the pandemic were out of a job. Then in August the total jobs lost during the pandemic reached nearly double the total jobs lost from Hurricane Katrina.
The jobs losses mounted, but the Acadiana region was not hit as hard as Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which are more dependent on the tourism industry. But it was the hospitality industry that took the brunt of the hit, with hotels and restaurants furloughing most of their staffs as events were canceled and restaurants were ordered to close their lobbies to stop the spread of COVID-19.
By late summer, the recovery was beginning. Retail sales rebounded, hotels were filled and restaurants were allowed by operate at 50% capacity. Unemployment is still high — Lafayette Parish had 342 initial claims filed the week ending Dec. 12, fourth-highest in the state — but jobs are returning.
Data from October shows Acadiana added 1,100 jobs but still had 11,100 fewer jobs than it did a year ago.
2. Amazon comes to Carencro. One positive result of the pandemic has been the rise in contactless retail. Amazon, that internet giant that sells just about anything, reaped the benefits and released plans to expand its presence.
It officially announced its plans to open a fulfillment center at the old Evangeline Downs racetrack in Carencro. It will employ at least 500 and should be open by this time next year.
That location along Interstate 49 and near Interstate 10 is ideal for a distribution center, and it’s a safe bet that Amazon won’t shut that thing down after a year or so. It also helps the region diversify its job base away from the oil and gas industry.
3. Oil industry sheds more jobs, price of oil drops below $0. Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell $55.90, to negative $37.63 a barrel in April. It was the lowest point of a year that had bad news sprinkled throughout, and the steep drop in demand for fuel was a big reason why. Halliburton let go of 36 employees at its Broussard office before closing it for good. Another manufacturer in New Iberia closed in the summer, putting 180 out of work. Schlumberger furloughed employees in the spring.
4. Downtown Lafayette diversifies. Downtown Lafayette might not have had the year folks were predicting, but there was diversified growth in retail in 2020. Long known as a hub of restaurants and bars, downtown welcomed Handy Stop Market, Designs by Robin, SugarWolf Outdoor Exchange and Beausoleil Books. And Hub City Cycles moved to a more prominent location on Jefferson Street. More restaurants opened downtown as well.
5. Real estate market sizzles. Interest rates for a mortgage dropped to unprecedented levels in Acadiana and across the country once the pandemic hit, and by June the market was exploding. The lower rates empowered buyers to land more house for the same monthly mortgage payment, and sales were 35 homes shy of topping last year’s mark before December arrived. The market right now is heavily in the seller’s favor.
What to watch for in 2021
The economy after everyone is vaccinated. Now that the vaccines are being distributed, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But what will that look like? Will there be some pent-up spending released at that time? Everyone wants to get back to normal pre-pandemic, but it has changed the way we spend our money and work. But there should be a spike in spending when it comes.
Suburban growth moves north. Carencro is leading the way when it comes to retail sales among the parish’s municipalities. Sure, everybody is still moving to Youngsville, but homes are being built in the parish’s north end where there are fewer flood zones and I-49. Now that Amazon is on the way, look for development to continue. Don’t be surprised if another supermarket chain buys land there this year.
More downtown growth. There won’t likely be significant growth downtown, but it will likely be more organic. Look for more development in the 200 and 300 blocks of Jefferson Street. The area is it a crossroads of sort: When will work resume at the old federal courthouse site? Will there be any movement in the old Evangeline Hotel building? Will the development at the vacant lots that Lafayette Consolidated Government sought proposals for result in something meaningful?