I’m writing this today because I had to make the choice to sacrifice enjoying “Locals Thursday” at Jazz Fest this year in favor of leaving town on a bus or as part of a car caravan destined for Baton Rouge. That fact only fuels my irritation with the disturbing mess that is also known as the proposed “New Orleans Hospitality Zone District.” Color me cranky as a result of this change in plans and please take a few minutes to read and think about this in consolation.
The current version of proposed bill LA SB 608 “Creates the New Orleans Hospitality Zone District” would create a new board to govern a proposed downtown “hospitality zone” (essentially bounded by the Mississippi River, the Pontchartrain Expressway, and Claiborne and Elysian Fields Avenues). While this seems like a reasonable idea (protecting the goose that lays the golden egg), the details of its execution are distinctly sub-optimal.
This proposed legislatively-empowered entity would have the capability to levy new taxes within the district relative to hotel rooms, restaurant and nightclub sales, and parking (but is not strictly limited to such kinds of taxation — it is possible that additional tax streams could be proposed by this entity). If I understand correctly, the taxing power would affect all hotels in the city, as well as food and beverage sales and parking within the hospitality zone’s boundaries. These new taxes would be paid by all who enjoy the fun and amusement that our incredible city offers within the hospitality zone — no one is exempt.
It would also expressly permit the following:
To acquire by gift, grant, purchase, or otherwise all property, including rights of way; to hold and use any franchise or property, real, personal, or mixed, tangible or intangible, or any interest therein, necessary or desirable for carrying out the objects and purposes of the district.
(Digest, pg. 7, LA SB 608).
Why would such be required to promote tourism within the hospitality zone, enhance public safety and sanitation services, or provide signage and lighting? Ah… Perhaps it would facilitate this stated purpose: “…to expand the entertainment and leisure activities and facilities within the hospitality zone.” This is the part of the bill that I refer to as ill-defined, over-reaching, and just plain dangerous.
The district’s board would be comprised of 11 to 17 appointees (different sources are presently reporting different tallies) from the city’s primary public and private tourism associations, as well as several individuals who would serve at the Mayor’s pleasure, all without set term limits. The majority of these individuals would almost certainly be closely tied to the Mayor, including the tourism industry representatives through his former Lieutenant Governor stint.
I ask, is cronyism not only possible — but perhaps inevitable? What could possibly go wrong with appointing friends and associates to positions of authority, perhaps without due consideration of their ability to serve both the tourism industry and the residential population with equal concern? There is nothing that can guarantee these appointees will also be committed to addressing the day-to-day needs of the impacted neighborhoods appropriately and completely. And while Mayor Landrieu is reportedly attempting to distance himself from this legislative action, the overall impact and intimacy created should reasonably inspire caution.
If the idea of creating special legislative districts was devised as a strategy to thwart abuses of power and public money in the Post-Katrina era, is this the best legislation our elected representatives can craft? Aren’t we supposed to be frowning upon endorsing classic New Orleans power grabs these days?
If this piece of legislation (as currently written) gets pushed through, the district’s “superboard” would be granted the authority to make policy decisions, as well as the power to levy taxes and issue bonds. Residents of the neighborhoods (in part or in whole) within the hospitality zone do not have a participatory role relative to this proposed board. At this time, affected neighborhoods include the Vieux Carré, the Faubourg Marigny’s Triangle, part of the Faubourg Tremé, part of St. Roch, the Central Business District, and the Warehouse District (as well as the already-existing legislative Downtown Development and French Quarter Management Districts). At least when matters go before the New Orleans City Council, residents have an opportunity to participate, object, and/or advocate — that could become non-existent with regard to this “superboard” (anything meaningful or impacting could simply happen behind closed doors). Transparency is not enhanced nor guaranteed in this privatization scheme… Where are the checks and balances?
As currently written, the tax revenue would be allocated without requiring input from or oversight by the New Orleans City Council. Monies generated would go to funding tourism advertising in general, as well as infrastructure enhancements within the hospitality zone’s boundaries solely at the discretion of this board. The citizens of the New Orleans do not get to vote to approve the creation of this Hospitality District, nor would they get to vote for the composition of its board, but will have the opportunity to vote on taxes levied on behalf of the Hospitality District. From my perspective, the independence of this non-elected board’s functioning amounts to taxation without representation and is unconscionable.
This also sets a precarious precedent and suggests that any proposed taxes will automatically be contentious — will this board be successful in raising one thin dime as a result? What happens if nothing put to vote passes successfully — will necessary infrastructure repairs continue to exist unaddressed? Will there be any expedient and equitable avenue for recourse? I’m guessing that this might be why LA SB 608 surprisingly allows for the Hospitality District “to sue and be sued.”
Is the city handing over responsibility for all such repairs and maintenance within the hospital zone, or just “special repairs?” If the responsibility is divided, won’t finger-pointing of the “You fix it!”/”No, you fix it!” sort be the probable result? And if all repairs are, in fact, going to be the responsibility of the district, then aren’t the people with the audacity to live inside of the hospitality zone still being taxed like every other citizen in this city but receiving less service or benefit for what they’re paying? (Taxes collected would be going to the city regardless of whether or not the city is providing the services that would be customary outside of the hospitality zone.) For the residents of the affected neighborhoods, this could become an absolute nightmare.
The map of the hospitality zone displayed at the one and only public meeting to date did not note a single proposed project to enhance the portion of Tremé neighborhood included in the hospitality zone’s boundaries (keeping in mind the traditional Faubourg Tremé boundaries that are historically identified as being Esplanade Avenue, North Rampart St., St. Louis St., and North Broad). Likewise, the Faubourg Marigny’s Triangle did not seem to merit significant attention (with the exception of one “proposed”– but not guaranteed — street/sidewalk repair work notation on Frenchmen Street), and the Marigny Rectangle (the other half of this historic neighborhood) is not included within the hospitality zone’s boundaries (excluding it from receiving any direct benefit).
Bear in mind that pretty proposal maps do not come with warranties — it’s purely conceptual at this stage in the game. There are streets in both of these neighborhoods that would benefit tremendously from re-paving and the repair of buckling sidewalks — what leverage would the residents of these neighborhoods have to get any non-proposed needs addressed? Where is the accountability to all who would be bounded by this proposed district (including the residential population)?
In 2011, subsequent to the NFL football season kick-off debacle, it was recommended to City Council by the Jackson Square Task Force that a special events coordinator position be created to prevent event-related train wrecks at the city’s administrative level… needless to say, such a position still does not exist. If we hand over the care and maintenance of the Hospitality District to the tourism industry without a direct means of oversight by the city (aside from the somehow catching the Mayor’s ear), can we really trust that this board will do any better, or that the city’s Administration won’t simply abdicate responsibility for more than what’s intended through this legislation? I’m frankly expecting that, if the city no longer has a role, we’ll have absurd events geared toward reeling in tourist bucks… Every. Single. Weekend.
In a recent letter regarding this issue, VCPORA President Carol Allen and French Quarter Citizens President Tom Bissell asked, “The fundamental question remains: Do we want the French Quarter to become a ‘hospitality zone’ with special taxation and its own non-elected, independent governing structure, most likely with a majority of seats being held by tourism interests?”
As a resident of the French Quarter, this is the epitome of the “Disneyfication” that everyone decries: handing over the heart of our amazing city to the tourism and hospitality industries on a silver platter in exchange for an alarming loss of process and control. It could impact the desirability of living within the boundaries of the Hospitality District negatively by further placing tourism concerns as a priority over and above the needs of the year-round, tax-paying residents. Please do not forget that it is this residential population in particular that makes these neighborhoods some of the most unique and distinct in the world.
To quote from Michelle Krupa’s 4/29/12 article in the Times-Picayune, “‘The proposed hospitality legislation raises a number of questions and issues,’ said Janet Howard of the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research. She cited the imposition of a new district on top of existing ones, the ‘appropriateness of the proposed boundaries and governance,’ and provisions that would allow the board to authorize tax-increment financing districts and other sub-districts.” Krupa also notes, “…some residents and business owners, particularly those in the French Quarter, have expressed concerns. They say the board as envisioned is too powerful, too beholden to the Mayor and simply unnecessary.”
Just because the Convention Center board voted during March 2012 to contribute up to $30 million for refurbishing the Vieux Carré and a larger hospitality zone in advance of next year’s Super Bowl event on February 3, 2013 does not mean that vague and over-reaching legislation should be rushed through as an on-demand commodity in response to a proffered enticement. Where is the integrity in this process?
The proposed legislation is being drafted (and re-drafted) in a manner that does not allow time for proper discussion and review with all concerned parties participating equally; that’s unacceptable, irresponsible, and careless. Do we really need a hastily-drafted and ill-defined legislative act to permit the tourism industry to spend this promised money for its own ultimate benefit if that “contribution” is meant to nurture the very parts of our city that this same industry has exploits? If the projected volume of desired annual visitors by 2018 to our city’s most visited historic areas is 13.7 million, why is legislation required to pay the dues for the anticipated and inevitable wear and tear?
Do we really need to subsidize the tourism industry on top of the taxes and donations snapped up by the Mayor’s own Office of Cultural Economy (and where does that money go, anyway)? While I can certainly understand the industry’s reluctance to allow these funds to flow into the city’s coffers via the General Fund, is this act of legislation really the best alternative?
I strongly encourage our elected representatives to go back to the drawing board in an attempt to solve the actual problem (how best to consistently care for one of Louisiana’s most valuable assets) instead of graciously opening the door to welcome new ones. Added bureaucracy, increased confusion, and decreased citizen involvement are never components of a desirable outcome.
Please contact these Legislators before Thursday, 5/3/12 and let them know that we do NOT need a “superboard” or an ill-conceived and poorly executed “New Orleans Hospitality Zone District.” Please copy and paste these addresses into an e-mail you can send to the bill sponsors and committee members for this week:
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
If you prefer to phone your opinion in, the Baton Rouge switchboard number is (225) 342-2040. Or you can visit our representatives’ local district offices.
Stay tuned, as LA SB 608 and other relevant bills can be amended… And we’re early in the game.
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5/1/12 Update: I am currently reviewing:
It is my understanding that, if SB 608 (which creates the “New Orleans Hospitality Zone District”) passes on Thursday 5/3/12, these will be the mechanisms specifying exactly how the Hospitality District will operate. Their consideration is apparently contingent upon the passage of SB 608 (they cannot stand separate from the creation of the district itself).