New Orleanians: If you’re not disgusted by the proposed Hospitality District, then you’re not paying attention

Louis Armstrong Park re-opening ceremony 11-18-11.

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.

Coco Robicheaux’s Second Line 12-12-11.

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.”

Mardi Gras Indians’ Super Sunday 3-18-12.

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:

murraye@legis.state.la.us, morrelljp@legis.state.la.us, morenoh@legis.state.la.us, wleger3@legershaw.com, dorseyy@legis.la.gov, tarverg@legis.la.gov, lasen15@legis.la.gov, cortezp@legis.la.gov, millsf@legis.la.gov, perryj@legis.la.gov, petersonk@legis.la.gov, info@vcpora.org

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

5/1/12 Update: I am currently reviewing:

LA SB 473 Creates the New Orleans Hotel Tourism District, a political subdivision of the State of Louisiana“;

LA SB 573 “Creates the New Orleans Entertainment and Hospitality District“;

LA SB 588 “Authorizes the City of New Orleans to levy a hotel/motel tax”; and

LA SB 598 “Authorizes the City of New Orleans to levy a tax on food and beverages.”

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).

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20 thoughts on “New Orleanians: If you’re not disgusted by the proposed Hospitality District, then you’re not paying attention

  1. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’ve been watching the long-term policymaking that redounds to the benefit of the tourism industry in New Orleans, both as a onetime resident and a historian of tourism.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Mr. Souther — I’ve been a longtime admirer of your writing and perspective! I’m also hoping that this legislation is re-examined critically on Thursday.

  2. I appreciate that. If you haven’t read it, you should read Scott Ellis’s Madame Vieux Carré. He uncovered a lot on the French Quarter that I missed in my own research. My current book project is on perceptions of decline in Cleveland, Ohio, although I do have another tourism book almost out – an edited volume on tourism placemaking at 35 iconic American destinations. It aims at a somewhat different audience than N.O. on Parade – geared more toward anyone who wants to understand the (re)construction of places to cater to tourists: in conjunction with the book, I’m blogging about tourism-related events at http://americantourismbook.com. Anyway, I’m following your blog now!

    • im one of those residents in the marigny against this. my neighborhood is a historic residential place for people to live. i dont want it becoming an “entertainment district”…we already have one of those and it’s called the French Quarter. as such it’s become largely uninhabital…from 40,000 full-time residents in the 1940s to about 4,000 today. who wants to live surrounded by loud drunk tourists? not me.

      let’s not ruin more neighborhoods in the name of “tourism”. it’s already too hard to get a drink at favorite watering holes — do we really need more tourists?

      let’s instead focus on making this a great place to live & work.

      • I am not surrounded by loud, drunken tourists in the section of the French Quarter where I reside — I don’t live on Upper Bourbon Street or Upper Decatur Street (the only two areas of the French Quarter that are expressly zoned “Entertainment” instead of “Commercial” or “Residential”), and I’m guessing that you don’t live on Frenchmen Street. With all due respect, please don’t sacrifice the well-being of my entire neighborhood in favor of your preferences regarding your own. If your address is within the boundaries of the “HoZone,” maybe we should instead all be in this together?

        While the estimated residential population of the French Quarter is currently ~4,000, the actual full-time (year-round) population is as little as 2,400. If I wasn’t feeling like an “endangered species” before, I definitely do now.

        • while bourbon and Decatur may be the official drunk entertainment zones, I’ve spent enough time in the quarter to know the drunks pissing on the street spill over to much more. true there are some areas where they are not found, but I think the decimation of the quarters population is proof of my point. sad but true.

          as myself, no I don’t live near Frenchmen, our entertainment district. instead I live near Franklin which is on its way there – loud drunks are becoming a much more common fixture.

          I realize cool late nite bars is part of new orleans charm, but real residents with day jobs need to be able to live our lifestyle — and that means residential neighborhoods that aren’t entertainment districts. marigny was that once, but is sliding the other way. in the name of entertainment and tourism of course. sounds fun short term but is a mistake long…I dont want to be forced out of the parish into suburbs. in fact I won’t — I’d move to another metro before that. that’s not good strategy for the city’s long term need to grow industry.

        • also, let me clarify lest lest one say my voice shouldnt be heard since i don’t collect mail in the proposed district: a) my girlfriend lives in the triangle. b) unless one lives in a bubble at home, we’re likely all affected by these new tax districts. c) I’m opposed to splitting the marigny into triangle vs rectangle because i think its divisive…”divide & conquer” works; instead we need solidarity and unity to oppose stronger powers. d) these things have a way of growing – that the CBD, where i work, is a proposed entertainment district is ironic (central *business* district). e) I’m against the principal of our gov’t collecting taxes only to hand off spending power to a non-representative board of private, commercial appointees.
          :)

  3. Seems to me they should be trying to preserve the city’s natural beauty, and historical values instead of destroying it. The city could make just as much if not more in tourist money if they were to restore the historical ambiance of the areas in question, along with repairing the streets and sidewalks.

  4. This is frighening news indeed, however, ive just had my rent raised to a price my land baron knew I cannot afford, and now i will have to leave the quarter, my haunt and home for the last 15 years – and try to find affordaable housing for my 4 mnth old daughter and myself. I fought long and hard to live in the neighborhood i love… gave up many things to “afford” it – but i’ve now lost the fight. One more Quarter Rat gone. The character of the Quarter dies a little bit here, a little more there. Move in Disneyland.. Move in part timers.. Good bye my home. :-(.. …

  5. VCPORA (Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents, and Associates) and French Quarter Citizens are inviting affected residents to join them tomorrow if they are concerned about the hospitality zone tax bill being introduced in the Senate! Tomorrow, 7:45 a.m., VCPORA’s office @ 816 N. Rampart. Coffee and pastries provided! Transportation provided! Lunch provided! We just need YOU!! Please RSVP now to info@vcpora.org

    • Ashley, thanks for posting this. I’ve confirmed with Ms. Lousteau at VCPORA that it’s okay for this information to be posted here — she replied, “GREAT! The more, the merrier!” (Because it wasn’t posted at their website, I had to confirm.)

      If you are interested in going, PLEASE RSVP ASAP. Space is limited — if you don’t RSVP, you might not be able to go with this group. Thanks!

      • Apologies! When I received notice from my neighborhood association, I assumed it was a call to arms! At least if you have to start turning people away, it will be a good gauge of outrage in the community. Please let us know.

        • No apology necessary — it’s confirmed that all are welcomed (but RSVP ASAP please!). I’ve edited my previous comment to reflect such. Again, thanks!

  6. This is an excellent summation. Well researched and on point. Any time you hear the word Authority or Board, be very afraid. Autonomous and unaccountable bodies made up of private citizens with vested interests and strong corporate ties rarely lead to the betterment of the general public. You have my support.

  7. Pingback: We Are a Community — Not a Commodity « NOLAFemmes

  8. ***COMMUNITY MEETING***
    PROPOSED “HOSPITALITY AND ENTERTAINMENT” TAXING ZONE (SB 573)

    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 7:00 PM
    St. Mark’s Church (1130 N. Rampart Street)

    Please join us for a community meeting to learn more about Senate Bill 573, which would establish a “Hospitality and Entertainment” Taxing Zone to include the French Quarter, the Marigny Triangle, Tremé, parts of the Seventh Ward, the Warehouse District, Faubourg Lafayette, and “adjacent areas.” The bill, introduced 10 weeks ago and un-amended despite numerous suggested changes, has dangerous implications for the neighborhoods that lie within “the zone.”

    There has been no public hearing on this bill, so this meeting will be the first (and maybe only) chance for citizens to weigh in publicly on this very important issue!

    We are reaching out to all of the neighborhoods impacted by this bill, our City Council members, and state legislators. You need to be there!

    ~ Security and refreshments provided ~

    This meeting sponsored by VCPORA, French Quarter Citizens and the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association

    P.S.: We apologize for the short notice – this issue has been moving quickly and unpredictably. Staying ahead of it has been challenging!

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