Lafayette's unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in March 2010; it was 6.3 percent a year later. Meanwhile, taxable retail sales in Lafayette Parish in 2010 were down 11 percent from 2008, according to LEDA. 

Those economic hiccups are not entirely a result of the moratorium, however. "The moratorium was part of it," Greco said of the recent slowdown, "and it's just the economic times catching up with us as things slow down." He pointed out that wages in the area have stagnated, which combined with higher fuel and food prices to dampen retail spending.

Oil and gas jobs have hardly evaporated. According to LEDA, Lafayette actually gained 200 oil and gas jobs during the May to October 2010 moratorium, because many companies kept workers on to refurbish drilling rigs and to help extract natural gas on land in northwest Louisiana. "In Lafayette Parish," according to a LEDA report, "the heavy concentration of service companies can provide their services just as easily for onshore activities as they do for offshore activities." 

What's more, Gothreaux said, Lafayette benefited from harsh lessons learned a quarter century ago. During a punishing slump for local energy companies, Lafayette's unemployment rate soared above 17 percent in 1986 and 1987, according to Haver Analytics and the BLS. The oil companies cut payrolls so deeply that they essentially lost a generation of workers to other industries and geographic areas, Gothreaux said. It was difficult for the companies to hire again when business improved. They didn't want to repeat that history during the moratorium, Gothreaux said. 

That caution served Lafayette well. The Hub City placed 11th nationally and second in the Southeast on the Milken Institute's 2010 Best Performing Cities Index, which ranks metro areas by "how well they are creating and sustaining jobs and economic growth." 

Another publication last year recognized Lafayette's nascent digital media community. Southern Business and Development magazine listed Lafayette among 10 digital media centers in the South, along with the likes of Austin, Atlanta, Nashville, and New Orleans. 

Pixel Magic, a Hollywood digital effects studio, opened a location in Lafayette in 2009. The state and local governments are vying to attract more digital media firms, partly piggybacking on Louisiana's emergence as a popular locale for shooting movies. Just as important, Lafayette's city-owned fiber network offers unusually inexpensive high-speed data transmission services to every home and business in the city.

Medicine, education sources of job growth Digital media holds promise for Lafayette. For now, though, local experts cite health care as the first economic staple after energy. Health care jobs account for 13.6 percent of metro area employment, compared to 12.6 percent in the state and 12.9 percent nationally, according to the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

Education is another major employment sector. The University of Louisiana has 16,000 students and 1,890 employees. And the Lafayette Parish public school system is the area's largest single employer, with 4,568 workers. 

Some of the reasons Lafayette and Louisiana have bucked the recession are not ideal. For one, neither experienced the boom-gone-bust as places such as Atlanta and much of Florida did. As Tulane's Smith put it, "We didn't have the jobs to lose." 

Lafayette's daily newspaper, The Advertiser, opined in an April 2011 editorial that the area still needs to diversify its economy. The paper noted that Lafayette and Louisiana didn't suffer much from the nation's loss of manufacturing jobs in the recession because "we have proportionately less manufacturing." The piece lauded the state for luring some factories recently. "If we can post similar successes in the digital and high-tech area—Pixel Magic in Lafayette is a start," The Advertiser editorial concluded, "we'll truly be on our way to the transition from an old-style resources economy to a modern, competitive, diversified one."

Lafayette, La.
Population 113,732
      Lafayette Parish 204,963
Median household income $43,475
Median owner-occupied home value $152,000
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005–9 American Community Survey

This article was written by Charles Davidson, a staff writer for EconSouth, and reprinted courtesy of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.


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