LAFAYETTE, La. A T first, only scattered clues hint at Lafayette’s new character and importance. A steakhouse puts $100— a-bottle Chateau Mouton Rothschild at the top of its wine list, and it becomes a frequent seller. A woman is overheard telling a coffee shop hostess how she is ”getting ready for Acapulco.” A Mercedes here and a Cadillac there zip along past fresh-faced new buildings.
They are clear signs, but they are submerged in the town’s soft, variegated texture, its ambience of woods and streams and earthy joie de vivre. For Lafayette is the capital of the Cajun country – live oak and bayou country still, the land of the boiled crawfish and the pirogue and the fais-do-do, a joyous evening dance scene. It looks it; there is hardly a skyscraper in town.
But there is an astonishing amount of money for a city of 85,000 people. Arthur Broussard, president of the Guaranty Bank, Lafayette’s largest, estimates that there are ”a thousand, perhaps more” millionaires in town. Others say there are as many as 2,000. As many as one Lafayette family in 15 may have a net worth of $1 million or more, and the super elite, what one of the millionaire class calls the Big Rich, are the present-day counterparts of the steel, auto and rail millionaires of a half a century ago.
This time it is oil. Lafayette is, importantly to its people, the capital of Acadiana – the Cajun country where settlers fled after being pushed out of the North (Cajun, indeed, is a bastardization of Acadian). It is also the oil-and-gas capital of Louisiana, the headquarters for the independent, self-made explorers and producers who are cashing in on this state’s considerable piece of the greatest drilling boom of all time.
With oil selling at $37 a barrel, and investors consequently rushing to put money into drilling for that oil, once-in-a-lifetime fortunes are being made -by those engaged directly in the oil business, and by those capitalizing on the prodigious, oil-induced growth of Lafayette itself.
As the new oil bubble has rapidly ballooned during the last five years, and especially in the last two as price controls were lifted, Lafayette has joined the Oil Patch’s select group of big-money oases that includes Houston, Dallas, and Midland, Tex. The wealth isn’t based on headliners – history-making fields like Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. Rather, its source is development in known oil producing areas. The amounts are modest in world terms, but quite enough to change the face of a local economy.
Indeed, the local economy is booming. Bank assets grew from $609 million in 1977 to well over $1 billion last year. Lafayette is ranked ninth in the country in the value of retail sales per household. The unemployment rate hangs in at around a very low 4 percent. Times are so good that it is hard to find a nonmillionaire in Lafayette who will express any resentment toward the Big Rich.
Some of the millionaires contribute importantly to the state treasury through a 12.5 percent severence tax on the value of oil extracted from the ground. But local taxes are inconsequential to them.
On a $450,000 house, for example, the real-estate tax would be a minuscule $2,670 a year, one of the lowest figures in the United States. The sales tax, source of most local revenue, is a mere 1 percent for the parish and 1 percent for Lafayette. Revenues for Lafayette Parish from that source nearly tripled between 1975 and 1980, to $15.2 million a year from $5.8 million.
Pat Calais, director of the Lafayette Parish School Board sales tax division, argues that ”It’s not really a bonanza, because you have to provide services for those who come in” from out of state. Indeed, prosperity has attracted 15,000 people to Lafayette since 1970, swelling the population to its current 85,000.
But still, Lafayette’s riches are startling because the town is so small. And precisely because it is more compact, the town offers perhaps a less obstructed look than would be the case in a bigger, more complex city at how today’s Oil Patch millionaires use their money, how they live, how their money affects the town, and how they view themselves.
In most cases, they are self-made men. ”This town is inordinately full of people who created what they got,” said 47-year-old Dwight Andrus Jr., a real-estate developer who has lived hereabouts all his life. Often, they have hit it big only after years of relatively unrewarding toil in the vineyards.
At the Petroleum Club, you wouldn’t know that so much money was seated in the velour chairs of the lounge or at the lunch tables, so informal is the atmosphere. Shirtsleeves and open collars prevail.
Outside in the Oil Center, a grouping of several streets where most of the oil companies’ offices are clustered, it is just as plain. The buildings, generally one story high, are of subdued yellow brick, very functional.
E VEN when there is a chance to show off, many tend not to take it. There are known to be two Rolls-Royces in town, but they are rarely seen. One owner takes the Rolls out of the garage only once a month.
There are some excesses, of course. The story is told, for example, about the man who chartered an eight-passenger Lear jet for $800 an hour to go to lunch. And about the oilman who owned a Cadillac limousine equipped with a backseat bar, wine rack, ice chest and color television.
(Page 2 of 2)
Some of the women are considered professional shoppers, spending eight hours a day in the stores, buying everything they can. Occasionally, one millionaire or another will build an ego-sized mansion in Green Briar Estates. Among wealthy teen-age girls, diamond teardrop necklace pendants and diamond earrings have acquired a certain cachet.
But as Mr. Andrus says, in his experience, ”The people who would tend to give things to their children in a way that is disgusting would be very small.”
A number of factors appear to account for the relatively reserved behavior of the Big Rich: First, many of the group are relatively young and well educated, with more sophisticated values and perceptions that the nouveau riche of 50 or 100 years ago. Second, they are perhaps a little gun-shy; oilmen have had a bad image, and there is a reluctance to contribute more to it. Third, there is the Cajun influence. If you take on airs with a Cajun, he will, in the words of one Lafayette resident, ”reduce you to rubble.”
Indeed, oilmen who move here from elsewhere tend to go a little bit native; to adopt the relaxed Cajun values and activities. Outdoor sports like hunting and fishing, for example, are extremely popular.
Where the Big Rich tend to splurge is in areas of individual interest – hobbies, recreational pursuits and the like that many nonmillionaires pursue also, but in which they cannot afford to indulge fully. ”If I want to go hunting in northern Canada, I will go,” said Mr. Andrus, whose paneled office contains mounted specimens of a wild turkey he has shot and a seven-pound large-mouth bass he has caught. ”If I want to see a play in New York, I will see it.”
There appear to be two shared extravagances: Food and travel. In food-proud Louisiana, in the middle of a land with a distinctive cuisine, restaurants abound. More are opening all the time, and the Big Rich flock to them. A waiter at the popular La Fonda restaurant (Mexican cuisine) says that a $100 tip for a $50 meal is not unknown, but that 20 to 30 percent from a millionaire is more usual.
Villas in Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta or Cancun; condominiums in Florida or Colorado; sporting trips everywhere in the world (a friend of Mr. Andrus’s recently returned from hunting in Mongolia); routine shopping or theater-going trips to New York – these are common possessions and pursuits. There are 13 travel agencies in town, and Lafayette is said to have the largest ski club in the country – the Cajun Ski Club, whose T-shirt symbol is an alligator schussing down a mountain.
The main thing the Lafayette millionaires appear to be worried about is keeping their money. As they see it, there are two major dangers, and both have much to do with how their money is used and with the impact it makes on Lafayette as a community.
The first factor is income taxes. There seems to be little question that this is by far the biggest determiner of how the Big Rich use most of their money. As might be expected, they invest it rather than lose it. And not surprisingly, they tend to invest it these days in tangibles – houses, boats and condominiums.
The second major concern among the oil millionaires is the future of the oil business itself. Some acknowledge that the current oilprice bubble is to some extent an artificial one; that is, an arbitrarily inflated boom that is not that closely related to real scarcity of oil in the world. If prices can be raised arbitrarily by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, it is reasoned, they can be lowered just as arbitrarily. Furthermore, some oilmen worry that a future Administration in Washington might not be so friendly as the one in power now, and that price controls might someday be reimposed.
So there is a feeling that it’s best to strike while the iron is hot, protect the results as best one can, and enjoy. No
Illustrations: Map of Louisiana Photo of a home