In a move that aims to up Lafayette’s “cool” quotient, DDA has hired an urban design professional with a law degree and real estate background to help Lafayette’s downtown realize its full economic potential.
Nathan Norris comes to Lafayette this week from Montgomery, Ala., where he was founding principal and director of implementation advisory for the urban design firm PlaceMakers LLC and had been working for a traditional neighborhood development much like River Ranch. He’s replacing Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Cathy Webre, who retired at the end of 2012 after 26 years on the job.
DDA says it received more than 100 resumes for the job and screened 14 applicants.
An attorney and real estate broker, Norris for the last decade has worked with developers and municipalities to plan and market neighborhoods, towns and cities.
Norris doesn’t pretend to know a whole lot about Lafayette or the challenges to downtown reaching its full potential just yet — saying he’ll “listen and listen really hard when I show up” — but he believes there is no place better than this city to put what he’s been preaching into practice.
Norris realized this when he was hired last spring by The National Association of Realtors, in conjunction with the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, to make presentations about trends toward town centers and downtowns, in essence buyer preferences about places they want to live and why. “I asked everybody what their favorite place in Louisiana was, and everybody, no matter where I was in the state, said Lafayette. They would say: ‘I live in Baton Rouge but I wish I could live in Lafayette.’ That doesn’t happen in any other state. I thought that was a little crazy, and I thought there’s gotta be something special about this place.”
A few months after the presentations, the father of a fifth and seventh-grader decided to step down from consulting work and the constant traveling. He turned his attention to Lafayette, saw the job posting and came to check the city out. Norris says he liked the food and people, the leadership, the strength of the local economy, and the comprehensive planning process that’s under way. It was just the combination he’d hoped to find.
“You can’t have great places without great people behind it,” he says. “That was my biggest concern before accepting the job, making sure there was that commitment to success. Lafayette’s got it. You combine the economy, the location, the commitment to success, the strong foundation that’s already been laid, and to me I’ve got to be pretty awful if I don’t perform well.
“I don’t know all the things I’m going to do," he continues. "I need to talk to a lot of folks before I can come up with some specific first action items. To me the No. 1 goal for downtown is to make it neighborhood where people want to live, not just a place they go to be entertained. You’ve got the beginnings of it, but the demand is substantially higher than the supply. And as someone who is moving from out of town to Lafayette, I can guarantee you that’s the case,” Norris says, noting his own difficulty finding a place to rent downtown temporarily until his wife and children relocate this summer.
Among Lafayette's major assets is its culture, but Norris doesn’t think the asset is fully recognized. "I don’t think locally you understand how powerful that is on a national level as far as recruiting talent. To me, economic development is about recruiting brains that don’t already currently exist in town to your town. At the same time, it’s retaining the smartest people you do have in your town instead of having them go off somewhere else. Now to retain all those wonderful brains, the real key is for people to understand that you’ve got to have a very vibrant downtown, because when out-of-town visitors come to your region they judge you first and foremost upon the strength of your downtown.
“The ultimate big goal is to get the entire region to understand that the continued revitalization is not about the downtown. It’s about the region, about an asset that will work for the entire region. Somebody who does not live downtown or does not want to live downtown or never goes downtown, they still will benefit from a vibrant downtown, maybe more than anything else. You’ve got the food, the music, the people. You’ve currently got the economy. There are a ton of people who love the lifestyle you’ve got in Lafayette, but you’ve got to have a better downtown if you’re gonna really pull those corporations because they are looking at the young talent and a lot of the young talent is going to big cities right now.”
That said, Lafayette has a ways to go. For this area to survive economically, it must leverage downtown as a key selling point, Norris says, and it’s not going to do that until the city center is perceived as a neighborhood "that’s activated 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has plenty of living options for all these workers that would be contemplating moving here."
With Norris heading DDA, Lafayette will soon be hearing a lot about shifts in buyer preferences — why people are leaving the suburbs and returning to the urban core — what he calls the "Great Migration."
In addition to PlaceMakers, the urban design firm he co-founded in 2003, Norris worked from 2004-2010 for The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development just outside of Montgomery. As director of marketing, sales and design, he helped implement the project.
He’s also been on the speaker circuit, talking to communities interested in leveraging placemaking as an economic development tool. The new DDA gig, however, will put an end to his traveling across the country.
“I wanted to go to a place ... and instead of just telling the cities this is what you need to do, actually put my money where my mouth is — be the one who has a large hand in making sure it happens,” Norris says. “I give the advice on ‘here’s what you gotta do’ and they don’t follow my advice or they don’t do it the way I would have done it, so it gets frustrating. I can’t complain about the person who is responsible anymore; I have to make it happen.”
While Norris is confident he can help build Lafayette’s downtown into the kind of place that offers entertainment, convenience and connectivity to neighbors while making it the economic driver it should be, he acknowledges a bit of trepidation. “I have two fears,” he says. “The first one is gaining too much weight.”
The second? “That I won’t be able to pronounce the names correctly.”
“I’m told you’re given a grace period,” he says.