Does Louisiana’s “Hollywood South” nickname cost more than we can afford?

During March 2013, the office of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor issued the following  press release about its “Tax Credits and Rebates in Louisiana” report:

BATON ROUGE – Mar 25, 2013 – Louisiana’s tax credit and rebate programs resulted in a tax revenue loss of more than $6.13 billion in revenue in the last seven years, according to a study of the programs released Monday by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office.

The performance audit looked at 44 of the credits that each resulted in a tax revenue loss of at least $1 million for at least one year between the calendar years 2006 and 2011. Auditors said the credits from those 44 programs – 52 percent of the 85 tax credit programs on the books — totaled a revenue reduction of approximately $5.4 billion, with 2011 tax data still incomplete as of October 2012.

The five most expensive tax credits accounted for almost $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion total for the period studied, or 67 percent of the total revenue loss. The five are:

·  The inventory/property tax exemption for businesses — $1.5 billion.
·  The insurance company premium tax credit — $1.1 billion.
·  The motion picture investor tax credit — $512 million.
·  The credit granted on net income taxes paid to other states — $402 million.
·  The credit for assessments paid to Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp. — $212 million.

While media sources are generally focusing on the $512 million figure noted above [emphasis added] regarding the “Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit,” it is actually one of three separate components of the film tax credit program listed among the 44 “loss leaders” noted in Appendix C of this report:

· The Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit: $511,613,716 (ranked #3 of 44)

· The Motion Picture Infrastructure Tax Credit: $29,561,287 (ranked #20 of 44)

· The Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program : $10,561,744 (ranked #29 of 44)

That’s a cumulative total of $551,736,747 over a period of 72 months’ time (or an average of $7,663,010 per month) that is reportedly lost through the program as a whole.

This $551,736,747 figure accounts for nine percent (9%) of the reported total lost of $6.13 billion during the six-year time frame examined in the report — or roughly $1 out of every $11 lost.

(Note, too, that those numbers do not include the much-touted year of 2012 with its 61 projects filmed in New Orleans… I predict that those numbers will reflect even greater losses as hundreds of millions more in uncapped credits and rebates are likely to be reflected in the statistics. If the program continues to operate in this unlimited manner, the notion of a “turning point” from subsidizing Hollywood to Louisiana’s realization of a genuine profit becomes increasingly unlikely.)

The three credits/programs noted in the report are described as follows:

Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit: Louisiana taxpayers that invest in state-certified motion-picture productions can earn a tax credit at the time expenditures are made by a motion picture production company. (This credit in particular features a rebate component, which the report defines as “A rebate is money directly reimbursed by the state to an entity or individual, independent of the tax return process or tax liability.”)

Motion Picture Infrastructure Tax Credit: To provide a credit against corporate income tax for an approved state-certified infrastructure project for a film, video, television, or digital production or postproduction facility. This credit applied to infrastructure projects between July 1, 2005 and December 31, 2008. (While this credit appears to time-bounded/no longer be active, it still earned a spot on the loss list.)

Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program: To provide a financial incentive to the film industry in order that the state might compete with other states for filming locations.

It seems that the only guaranteed way to make the big money in “Hollywood South” is to be a so-called “motion picture investor,” given that the tax dollar hemorrhage from that program is a staggering 48 times greater than the losses experienced by the so-called “Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program” itself.

And, oh, the hand-wringing that occurred when Governor Jindal proposed the implementation of a $1 million limit on the amount that could be claimed for each actor’s salary by production companies as qualifying expenses when applying for Louisiana film tax credits! (Never mind that this precise limitation already applies to “payroll spent on Louisiana residents,” apparently whether or not they’re in front of the camera.) The governor only wanted to trim one specific part of the program… however, with media coverage regarding this report currently on the rise, I suspect that future proposed cuts may go even deeper.

As noted in this WWL TV story originally broadcast on 3/25/13, Mayor Landrieu’s office has been at work, creating the spin:

“We asked Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration whether the film tax credit program is providing a tangible benefit to the New Orleans economy.

“His adviser on the Cultural Economy said in a statement, ‘The state’s tax incentive program for film has helped New Orleans grow a new industry. We estimate that since 2007, New Orleans has seen more than $2 billion in direct spending from tax credit film projects – money that is spent in and remains in the local economy, as the program intended. Our local film industry is now nationally known, and it supports more than 1,000 full-and part-time jobs. Production companies want to film here because of the tax incentives and numerous related businesses have launched or relocated to New Orleans because of the opportunities that have been created.'”

Unlike the numbers noted in the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report, the figure of “$2 billion in direct spending” (which is not to be confused with $2 billion in tax revenue generated) is unsubstantiated.

The estimated “1,000 full- and part-time jobs” may not be as statistically significant as the Mayor’s adviser’s statement would like to imply if one considers that the city’s current estimated population is ~370,000, nor is it confirmed if all of these jobs in fact consistently pay a year-round living wage.

While the auditor’s report includes fairly “hard” numbers (verifiable, with the exception of the noted not-yet-complete figures for calendar year 2011), the best we see from proponents of the film tax credit program are nothing more than “soft” or estimated figures that are inherently difficult to verify.

As the WWL story notes, “And without a requirement that the tax credit programs track the return on the investments, the legislative auditor said it’s tough to tell if they’re worth it.”

We need a real “Lesser New Orleans” movement to combat the demons of ambition!

On 4/19/13, a privately-created proposal by the “Tricentennial Consortium” was divulged, one that would replace the New Orleans International Trade Mart building (also known as the World Trade Center site) with a park including an “iconic structure”/”monumental attraction” and a “sleek people mover” (light rail or monorail?), among other attractions. Writing as someone familiar with Seattle, this proposal feels like déjà vu all over again.

Why do the powers-that-be of New Orleans feel the need to change what is frequently referred to as “the most unique city in America” by imitating attractions found in other cities?

While Mayor Landrieu told The Lens “that one possibility for the site would be to create a monumental attraction, on par with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis,” it appears that this bid for tourist dollars more closely resembles featured attractions of Seattle, virtually duplicating the major components of the 1962 World’s Fair location, including the Space Needle, the Seattle Center park, and the monorail. (The unrelated yet eerily coincidental proposed duck boat tours only add to this comparison, as such tours actually depart from a location adjacent to the Space Needle in Seattle.)

(The irony of possibly re-developing a portion of what once was the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition site to emulate features from the 1962 Century 21 Exposition location as a highlight of the upcoming 2018 New Orleans Tricentennial is both mind-boggling and hilarious.)

I wonder: what (if any) public participation will occur relative to the Tricentennial Consortium’s privately-created plan for redeveloping the World Trade Center property? Or is the public’s only welcomed role to pay for this proposal in some yet-to-be-determined manner?

If this proposed park comes to pass, it will likely also include its own version of the highly controversial “Seattle Commons.” (Via The Lens, “…Convention Center officials have been quietly drawing up plans for an expansion of the giant facility. They call for allowing private companies to develop a hotel, apartments, condos, retail stores and restaurants on 50 acres just upriver from the Convention Center.“) Thankfully, however, that particular “public-private collaboration” was defeated by Seattle voters — twice.

Riverfront development of any kind should require incredible scrutiny, including the opportunity for public consideration — will New Orleanians be given the opportunity to vote on any portion of this proposed development?

At the Bureau of Governmental Research‘s “Breakfast Briefing” featuring Mayor Mitch Landrieu as the guest speaker on April 3, 2013, I asked our Mayor the following question:

“Legal notices were recently published in the Times-Picayune regarding the taxation of food, beverages, and hotels in New Orleans similar to what was proposed for the Hospitality Zone in 2012. Will the Hospitality Zone be reintroduced during the 2013 legislative session?”

Mayor Landrieu initially replied simply, “Not in that form.”

He then continued, stating that the city doesn’t get any money from sales inside of the Superdome, the Arena, or the Convention Center, and only a sliver of funding from Harrah’s Casino. He also described the failure of the “Hospitality Zone” legislation during 2012 as “a great tragedy.”

Is it possible that these legal notices might be related to this proposed park project (instead of another Hospitality Zone initiative outright)?

The movers and shakers of our city seem hell-bent to attain the desired 13 million annual visitors at any cost. Do you ever get a sinking feeling that those coveted 13 million non-residents seem to matter more than the ~370,000 New Orleanians who, to date, have dug their heels in to rebuild this city? I do… and with ever increasing frequency, as the Landrieu Administration continues to march relentlessly to the beat of its own drummer.

With the City of New Orleans obligated to pick up the tab for two consent decrees, wouldn’t one of the other options to re-purpose the International Trade Mart building or redevelop the site as a whole to become a viable revenue generator be more sensible? Yes. But that wouldn’t facilitate what appears to be yet another classic land grab attempt.

If the City that Care Forgot  is going to emulate the attractions Emerald City, there’s a lesson to be learned about organizing opposition to prevent the over-development of New Orleans. The following “Network X” episode (originally broadcast on June 1, 1995) still serves as an excellent primer for the kinds of citizen-driven concerns that may emerge regarding this project:

This kind of city-altering project must include public participation. If such an opportunity is not permitted, our elected officials may learn an unpleasant lesson about what happens when “doing for” the citizens of New Orleans crosses over into “doing to.”

And although legendary Seattle curmudgeon Emmett Watson’s tongue-in-cheek “Lesser Seattle” campaign ultimately failed for a variety of reasons, it did get one thing right: “It served as a kind of talisman against vanity, overreach, and hubris.”

I hope that New Orleanians will take heed of this lesson from its demise:

“The city we loved is being choked by gigantism. The small, livable, sensible, sustainable city we once purported to love is dead.”

Culture vs. enforcement: Could SB 140 change our City Administration’s priorities?

At its April 2013 Board meeting, the French Quarter Management District presented a draft copy of a flyer titled, “Do You Know It’s Illegal To: French Quarter Businesses” detailing the existing laws and ordinances applicable to businesses operating in the French Quarter (complete with citations!). This document, although still in draft form pending verification and final approval, is an eye-opening compendium of the existing ordinances and laws applying to businesses — and particularly “Alcohol Beverage Outlets” (ABOs or bars) operating in the Vieux Carré.

(For example: it’s illegal to “Allow an employee or any other person on the premises of a Class A ABO, including a doorway, to expose unclothed or in attire any portion of the cleft of the buttocks OR a female breast below the top of the areola. Law differs for live entertainers while onstage. La. R.S. 26:290 (B)(1) & (2), (D), (E); Sec. 110-157, 434, 435″ — who knew?!)

In April 2012, the French Quarter Management District also produced a similar — albeit more generalized — flyer detailing the ordinances and laws relative to individuals/citizens/residents: “Do You Know It’s Illegal To: ILLEGAL In the French Quarter.” This document is also reportedly currently being updated with minor revisions.

While both of these documents are interesting, it’s common knowledge that our City Administration’s emphasis on enforcement of such ordinances and laws is inconsistent at best. This could be, in part, because Louisiana law currently limits the amount of fines assessed at the municipal level to a maximum of just $500.

However, Senator J.P. Morrell (D-Dist. 3) is introducing Senate Bill 140 as part of the 2013 Legislative Session (its digest states as follows):

Present law mandates the maximum penalty to be imposed for violation of any parish ordinance is $500 and imprisonment of 30 days in the parish jail.

Proposed law provides for the city of New Orleans to establish a maximum penalty for violations of any parish ordinance as codified in the city code of ordinances at $5,000 and imprisonment of six months in the parish jail.

Effective August 1, 2013.

If SB 140 is passed and our City’s Administration figures out that there’s a possible new revenue stream from stepping up enforcement efforts, these odd little laws that are already on the books might become surprisingly — and possibly unexpectedly — significant. The passage of this bill will likely mean that our city’s officials will pursue more aggressive — and lucrative — fines for numerous violations that are currently possibly considered to be too costly to routinely enforce.

While I am generally in favor of this proposed bill, I am also concerned that it could have unforeseen consequences… particularly when one considers the enforcement efforts that have already been identified as “priority” issues by our elected officials.

Keep in mind, too, that the impact of this proposed bill will affect all of Orleans Parish — not just the French Quarter. Heads up, everybody!

These birds don’t need to fly South — help keep New Orleans free of “duck boat” tours!

The New Orleans Steamboat Co. and Grayline Tours have filed an application requesting a license to operate “duck boat tours.”

These excursions will travel along Decatur Street through the French Quarter to the Grayline location at the Toulouse Street Wharf, then to Canal Street and out to Lake Pontchartrain. At this time, I’m guessing that these WWII amphibious landing craft vehicles will return to that location for tour participants to disembark, but the precise route of travel throughout the city isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm (yet).  It has been reported that tours will likely also depart from and return to the WWII Museum due to its inherent tie-in with the type of vehicle being used.

The congestion and the sheer variety of vehicles traveling on Decatur Street is already alarming. In addition to standard buses directed to use Decatur as an approved bus route, there are the mule-drawn buggies, the questionably safe candy-colored three-wheeled toy cars, shorter buses and faux trolleys that are permitted to travel throughout the Quarter, pedicabs and, most recently, double-decker hop-on/hop-off tour buses — all in addition to personal vehicles, delivery trucks, taxis, bicycles, etc.

Do we really need to add over-sized amphibious landing craft into the mix of traffic traveling throughout our notoriously pothole-riddled city? I suspect that our elected officials will come to realize that it’s simply too much only after the appropriate licenses have been issued (and the wheels and propellers have started spinning).

I view these duck boat tours as an encroaching invasive species — yet another homogenized cookie-cutter tourist experience not particularly different from all of the other duck boat tours offered in several other cities in the United States. And I am absolutely confident that New Orleans will continue to draw a staggering number of visitors (9.01 million during 2012!) without the addition of this novelty tour.

These open-air vehicles will feature amplified music and the tour guides will use theatrical-quality sound systems to broadcast their repetitive spiels. Tour participants are also encouraged to sing along with recorded music at particular locations along the route, asked to use souvenir plastic “quackers” frequently, and urged to be boisterous to draw attention to the spectacle — noisy displays of “participatory fun” are a part of the overall promotional marketing strategy for these tours.

An example of the duck boat tour experience can be viewed via this video:

 

The duck boat tours have recently ruffled feathers in Seattle, as well:

The company bills the rides as a “party that floats,” complete with a “crazy captain” who narrates the passing scenery through a loudspeaker and passengers outfitted with duck squawkers.

At the height of summer, the Duck boats enter and leave Lake Union 150 times a day, or about once every four minutes in a 10-hour day, according to company estimates and the neighbors’ calculations. Plans call for a ramp just south of a small street-end park and 100 feet from the nearest houseboats.

“It’s like putting a truck route through a quiet, residential neighborhood,” said Dave Galvin, who has lived on a nearby houseboat for 26 years.

Further, a duck boat tour resulted in the deaths of two tourists in Philadelphia, PA: Duck Boat Survivor Describes Chaos of 2010 Barge Crash on Delaware River. A “runaway duck” boat caused a seven-car pile-up in Boston; another ran over a motorcyclist stopped at a red light, then dragged its victim through a prominent downtown Seattle intersection. The Huffington Post conveniently provides additional accident reporting: Duck Boats Have a History of Accidents: A Brief Guide. As one writer noted (regarding the Boston accident), “Weird. It’s almost as if amphibious vehicles from WWII are unreliable or something.” This might very well be true, given that were designed for storming beaches in combat zones instead of providing recreational tours in densely-populated urban environments.

I wonder, how many neighborhoods in New Orleans will be directly affected by these tours? These notably ugly and loud vehicles could end up traveling through any neighborhood deemed “interesting” for whatever purpose serves the tour companies and their guides, just like any other bus tour. Since the most common model of this vehicle exceeds 31′ in length, they won’t be allowed into the interior of the French Quarter… but I don’t believe that any similar prohibition protects any other neighborhood in New Orleans.

(Keep in mind, too, that the Vieux Carré isn’t entirely immune to a future duck boat tour invasion — reportedly there are variations of these vehicles currently in use in other cities that are shorter than 31′ in length, suggesting the possibility they could be seen traveling within the Quarter eventually.)

The way I understand it at this moment, when someone applies for a For Hire Vehicle Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNC) license for the purpose of operating a tour, it’s pretty much handled directly by the city’s Taxi for Hire Vehicle Bureau (under the purview of its Director, Malachi Hull). In general, a tour is a tour is a tour — even if an application involves a type of vehicle not yet in use in the city of New Orleans. I am unaware of any particular requirement for new types of vehicles or tours to go before the City Council’s Transportation Committee for public review and comment.

Yesterday I sent the following email inquiry (and will add any reply received to this post):

Date: Sun, Mar 24, 2013 at 5:05 PM
Subject: Seeking Transportation Committee agenda information
re: “Ride the Ducks”
To: “Kristin G. Palmer” <kgpalmer@nola.gov>, “Vincent J. Rossmeier” <vjrossmeier@nola.gov>

Hello, Councilmember Palmer:

I understand that the New Orleans Steamboat Co. & Grayline Tours have requested a CPNC license to operate duck boat tours that will travel along Decatur Street through the French Quarter to the Grayline tour bays, then to Canal Street and out to Lake Pontchartrain, etc.

May I please ask when this might appear on the New Orleans City Council’s Transportation Committee agenda for public consideration and comment? According to the “Tentative Committee Meeting Schedule” posted online, it appears that the next meeting of this committee is scheduled for 10:00 AM on Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Thank you for your time and assistance.

Kalen Wright

I don’t believe that there’s much available in terms of legal prohibitions for our City Council to trot out to deny the issuance of a CPNC license for these tours. These vehicles are being characterized as “tour buses.” We let tour buses travel the perimeter of the French Quarter routinely (as part of the ages-old compromise to keep them out of the the Vieux Carré’s interior) and to otherwise roam the city freely. However, these ugly-as-hell vehicles and the noisy behavior of tour participants will constitute a regularly-scheduled nuisance for all, most particularly those who happen to live near a featured attraction along the tour’s route.

We need for a popular uprising objecting to the proposed duck boat tour invasion of New Orleans, if for no other reason than to give our City Council a groundswell of constituent concern to use as a shield.

Please write to our city Council members, Mayor Landrieu, and New Orleans Taxicab and For Hire Bureau Director Malachi Hull immediately regarding this issue — because there’s not an overt requirement calling for public review or comment regarding this matter, a license could unfortunately be issued at any time.

For convenience here’s a handy clip-and-paste address list:

Malachi Hull <mhull@nola.gov>, Kristin G. Palmer <kgpalmer@nola.gov>, Susan Guidry <sgguidry@nola.gov>, James Gray II <jagray@nola.gov>, Stacy Head <shead@nola.gov>, Jackie Brechtel Clarkson <jbclarkson@nola.gov>, LaToya Cantrell <lcantrell@nola.gov>, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell <chmorrell@nola.gov>, Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu <mjlandrieu@nola.gov>

Opposition to outlandish vehicles isn’t without precedent in New Orleans. Please consider the words of Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (with a hat tip to Jeffrey at Library Chronicles):

I wish that those Scenicruisers would be discontinued; it would seem to me that their height violates some interstate highway statue regarding clearance in tunnels and so forth. Perhaps one of you, dear readers, with a legal turn of mind can dredge the appropriate clause from your memory. Those things really must be removed. Simply knowing that they are hurtling somewhere on this dark night makes me most apprehensive.

Or, as Thom Kahler quipped when I started posting my concerns regarding this subject elsewhere on the Internet, “Oh, no, no! Let’s hold out for ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!'”

Duck boat tours in New Orleans? Please, let’s all sound off with a loud and heartfelt “HELL, NO!” chorus right now! Send a reminder to our elected officials once again that we are a community — not a commodity.

CBS’ “The Talk” is first to apply for LA film tax credits for its Super Bowl broadcasts

Earlier this week, Governor Jindal unveiled his plan for revising Louisiana’s taxes. Included in that plan was the implementation of a $1 million limit on the amount that could be claimed for each actor’s salary by production companies as qualifying expenses when applying for Louisiana film tax credits.

While the on-screen talent could be paid a higher salary than this limit, the production would only be allowed to claim a maximum of $1 million for tax credit reimbursement. This means that Louisiana taxpayers would only be on the hook for 30% of that cap, amounting to $300,000 apiece maximum for out-of-state big name stars like Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, Nicole Kidman, Tracey Gold, and Edward Furlong (regardless of whatever paycheck they pull down while filming in Louisiana).

Frankly, it makes sense, as this exact limitation already applies to “payroll spent on Louisiana residents (those who maintain a permanent home and spend more than six months each year within the state) working on film sets, as long as the salary does not exceed $1 million.” For our state’s citizens, apparently this cap applies whether or not they’re in front of the camera.

This made me think about the fact that Louisiana was the fifth poorest state in the US in 2012 (falling in after Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia). In that same year, our state spent $231 million from its citizens’ tax dollars to pay for film tax credits. Reining in this unlimited program in any way might honestly be more beneficial than picking up a portion of the paychecks for visiting talent from the “other LA” — especially since this program has reportedly cost our state more than $1 billion since 2002.

Then I wondered, did any of the programs that were broadcast from CBS’ “Super Bowl Park at Jackson Square” during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII have the unabashed gall to apply for the Louisiana Film Incentive & Tax Credit Program?

Unfortunately the answer to that question is yes.

The daytime chat show “The Talk” has applied for what amounts to Louisiana taxpayers’ subsidization of its broadcasts from the largest stage occupying Jackson Square during that week-long media frenzy.

Photo by Bernie Murden dated 1/28/13, used with permission.

Today’s email inquiry:

From: Kalen Wright
Date: Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 12:25 PM
Subject: Question re: Super Bowl filming and the Louisiana Film Tax Credit Program
To: Amanda Hafford

Dear Ms. Hafford:

I have a question regarding the multitude of TV shows and filming projects that occurred in New Orleans during the week of broadcasting occurring as part of the Super Bowl XLVII event.

As you are aware, several TV programs were filmed and broadcast during the week prior to the Super Bowl XLVII game including, but not limited to, the following: the NFL Network, ESPN, the CBS Sports Network, the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, CBS’ “The Talk” TV show, the Super Bowl telecast itself, etc.

Did any of the broadcast/filming productions associated with Super Bowl XLVII apply for and/or receive Louisiana film tax credits? If so, which program(s) and could you please also disclose the amount of the tax credits received?

If possible, I would prefer to receive your reply by email.

Thank you very much for your time, consideration, and assistance.

Respectfully,

Kalen Wright

The following reply was received from Louisiana Film in the office of Louisiana Economic Development:

From: Amanda Hafford
Date: Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 3:32 PM
Subject: RE: Question re: Super Bowl filming and the Louisiana Film Tax Credit Program
To: Kalen Wright

Hi Kalen,

Of the shows you cite, only “The Talk” has applied to the program. They are in the processing phase of initial certification and have not been issued credits to date.

Best,

Amanda

Amanda L. Hafford
Assistant Director, Louisiana Film
Louisiana Economic Development
http://www.opportunitylouisiana.com

As some might recall, “The Talk” inadvertently offended many New Orleanians during its recent visit to Jackson Square. Now it seems that we’ll all have the honor of picking up a minimum of 30% of the not-yet-disclosed tab for the pleasure of that experience.

The greasing of the poles kicks off this weekend’s carnival festivities in the French Quarter!

The French Quarter’s Royal Sonesta Hotel originated this 43-year tradition of greasing the hotel’s gallery support poles to “deter over zealous revelers from shimmying up to coveted Bourbon Street balcony space during carnival season.” This year’s venerable yet humorous Mardi Gras spectacle delivered wonderfully, featuring “celebrity guests, great local music, and a whole lot of petroleum jelly!”

Photo 1

The Pussyfooters of New Orleans warming up the crowd and kicking off the spectacle!

Photo 2

Royal Sonesta’s President & General Manager Al Groos welcoming the participants and spectators.

Photo 3

Zulu King Cedric George Givens was on hand to witness today’s event.

Photo 4

A performance to the tune of “Big Spender” set the mood for the pole-greasing contestants: “Hey, pole greaser! Grease that big ol’ pole for me!”

Photo 5

This year’s celebrity pole greaser, actor Laura Cayouette of HBO’s “Treme,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” and “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” appears enchanted by the song performance tailored to this year’s event!

Photo 6

The competition begins with three special guest Pussyfooters of New Orleans and celebrity pole greaser Laura Cayouette…

Photo 7

The competition heats up as Laura realizes that the Pussyfooters are greasing to win!

Photo 8

Actor Laura Cayouette steps up her performance today, giving her challengers some real competition!

Photo 9

I salute this Pussyfooter of New Orleans for bringing artistry and grace to today’s messy festivities!

While I’m still not yet certain who officially was voted the champion pole greaser for 2013 (and, really, that’s never been the point of this event), I know for a fact that a fun and unusual “only in New Orleans” tradition was enjoyed by all in attendance!

As my friend @CaptainSwallow quipped, “only in New Orleans could ye use the term ‘celebrity pole greaser’ politely!”

Sandy Hook Elementary School’s Chorus & Jennifer Hudson sing of hope in nation’s murder capital

Via Rafael Delgadillo, shared with his permission. I very much admire Rafael’s thoughts, perspective, and clarity re: last night’s events:

Last night’s game will go down as one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever. For the great play, the blackout, and for coming back to NOLA for the first time in 11 years.

However, for me, the most memorable moment was before the game. To see the Sandy Hook Elementary School Choir pair up with Jennifer Hudson (whose mother, brother, and nephew were shot to death in 2008) in singing “America the Beautiful” literally in the middle of this country’s most violent city.

Perhaps I’m looking into it too deeply, but those of you who know me well will understand. That moment was moving. Though it is a great song, to me it had lost its meaning over time, like all songs do. But as I heard it last night, it struck me more as a song about the hope that we have for this country’s potential rather than a declaration of our exceptionalism.

The irony of it all. Jennifer Hudson and Sandy Hook’s community reminding us that we can do great things, like curb gun violence on one hand. On the other, the NFL used this city to put American overindulgence on display and quite literally sucked the energy out of one this nation’s poorest cities in the process.

Sorry if this is too personal, but sometimes… you just gotta…

#GoNOLA

Thank you, Rafa, for sharing these powerful thoughts and words.

Super Bowl sleight-of-hand: Jackson Square remains open, Louis Armstrong Park is closed

NOPD Supt. Serpas, Mayor Landrieu, Councilmember Palmer, and other city officials at Armstrong Park’s re-opening on 11/18/11.

While City Hall has lived up to its word that Jackson Square would (technically) remain open to the public throughout the Super Bowl media activity, that policy does not apply equally to Louis Armstrong Park.

The NFL Honors ceremony, a two-hour prime time awards special event, will be held at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre on the evening prior to Super Bowl XLVII (Saturday, 2/2/13). And although the city’s official press release indicated that Armstrong Park would not be closed to the public in preparation for this event until Wednesday, 1/30/13, the park has, in fact, been locked up tight since Monday, 1/28/13.

Locked gates have been keeping the pubic out since Monday, 1/28/13.

Isn’t it particularly unfortunate that the one place designated by our city to recognize its jazz heritage isn’t available to the public — visitors and locals alike — at this time when our city is celebrating its moment in the media’s spotlight?

A tented red carpet now stretches from the St. Ann Street arched main entrance to the park all the way to the Mahalia Jackson Theatre; its construction reportedly started on Thursday, 1/24/13.

Here’s the thing: New Orleanians lived around 61 filming projects last year (without issue or incident). The current media activity in Jackson Square has been equally undisturbed… and yet, Louis Armstrong Park is closed.

So why is the park closed for a full week’s time for a one-night event?

20130130_093451Initially I’d thought that it’s because the city didn’t want to maintain security/a police presence, but now I suspect that there’s an even simpler explanation: because there’s nothing for the visitors to buy there, it’s been sold out for a private event, denying the public reasonable access without a second thought.

In discussing this casually online, one friend suggested that possibly it was a measure to steer our city’s visitors to destinations more directly aligned with the Clean Zone’s objectives and boundaries; he added that the enhanced police presence in the Clean Zone would also reinforce this theory.

Another friend replied, “[It’s] more like without a first thought — not a second one. It seems right now that we (the folks) are all in the back row for the big show.”

One can only wonder how much the city is being paid for this week of exclusive use and hope that those funds will eventually serve the public-at-large in a meaningful way.

DIRECTV’s digital age blimp returns to New Orleans’ skies for Super Bowl XLVII

Photo 1

The crew and mechanics preparing for the morning’s flight.

When New Orleans hosted the 2012 Allstate BCS National Championship Game, the DIRECTV blimp sailed above our city for several days’ time, floating above the French Quarter, CBD, and Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a lazy circular orbit. Its digital display was visually engaging, mesmerizing and colorful, drawing eyes and attention easily.

Photo 2

Aloft in the skies above the 2012 BCS Championship. (Photo by DIRECTV Blimp.)

I soon learned of the @dtvblimp Twitter account and was delighted by the photos tweeted by its crew, especially those that presented a view of the city not often witnessed by those of us who spend most of our time traveling our city’s streets and sidewalks. I followed the account and found myself looking forward to pictures posted in other cities from other events. Upon discovering that the blimp was again en route to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, I requested the opportunity to interview the crew about the adventure of taking the blimp from city to city and to learn more about its operation.

Photo 2a

Approaching to board!

Launched in October 2007 at the Major League Baseball World Series in Boston, the blimp is operated by the Van Wagner Airship Group and contracted to DIRECTV as a client. It measures 178′ in length and its material components weigh 10,000 pounds.

The blimp itself is constructed of layers of high-density ripstop nylon enhanced with Teflon® and Kevlar® coatings, and is entirely flexible, without structural framework components. (Unlike the Hindenburg airship or zeppelins, there is no rigid or semi-rigid frame.) A helium-filled lighter-than-air craft, it is both powered and steerable (unlike a free-floating balloon). Its external components include twin propeller engines, rudders, cables, and the undercarriage gondola. Its fuel capacity is 220 gallons and and its burn rate averages 10 gallons of gasoline per hour of flight time.

Photo 2b

The DIRECTV blimp and its support vehicle entourage. (Photo by DIRECTV Blimp.)

The lightsign digital display measures 70′ by 30′, 35 panels wide and 15 panels deep, and weighs 900 pounds. Featuring 33,600 pixels and 235,200 LEDs, the lightsign can be viewed with clarity from the ground day or night. (Due to this additional weight on the blimp’s port side, the airship almost always lists slightly.)

The lightsign is what makes the DIRECTV blimp one-of-a-kind and what makes this airship the most popular blimp in the country. The panels are similar to those used for digital billboards and on the sides of buildings. However, unlike structural light displays, the blimp’s surface is flexible — much like skin. It is capable of displaying live video, concerts, and scoreboard statistics, but has also played a part in marriage proposals and birthday announcements.

Photo 3

The sparse instrument panel from the pilot’s perspective; I’m riding shotgun!

The DIRECTV lightship is usually featured at a minimum of two events each week and is constantly in motion; when traveling between the East and West coasts, it typically follows the Interstate 10 corridor. While it typically flies at an altitude of 1,500 feet, its maximum altitude is approximately 10,000 feet. Although the Van Wagner Airship Group is based in Orlando, FL, the blimp and its crew function as an entirely mobile unit — everything required for its operation and maintenance travels from one location to next for each flight event. As the blimp travels at a speed averaging 35 miles per hour, typically making 200-mile hops each day between destinations, the majority of its crew travel in trucks and trailers below.

Photo 5

The ground crew’s pre-flight wrangling!

The full crew includes a chief pilot, a line pilot, a crew chief, an assistant crew chief, two mechanics, a lightsign operator, a camera operator, a clerk and 10 crew/ground support personnel. While the blimp was tethered to its mast, I noticed that its crew members were relaxed and personable; it was immediately clear that this team works well together. Many of the crew members describe themselves as gypsies and were genuinely enthusiastic about the perpetual travel. While the newest member of the team has been on board for one year’s time, some members of the Van Wagner Airship group have been with the company for 20 years.

Photo 4

Adjusting the blimp’s positioning for take off…

The in-flight crew typically consists of one or two pilots (depending on the duration of flight time), and a camera operator and/or a lightsign programming operator (depending on the purpose of the flight). Seating is limited in the approximately 12′ x 5′ gondola; while there is some space for equipment as needed, it’s compact, utilitarian, and sparse by design.

The blimp remains grounded if there are poor weather conditions — stormy weather, electrical activity, or winds greater than 18 miles per hour. Due to its traveling speed limitations, high winds significantly limit its ability to travel.

Photo 6

Confirmation that the DIRECTV blimp is now completely under the pilot’s control — lift off!

Unlike other forms of travel, a blimp isn’t simply flown — it is constantly wrangled, both by the ground crew and its pilot. Even when tethered to its mast, It’s almost never fully grounded and seems to be always slightly in motion. During flight, it seemed that Chief Pilot Jeff Capek was constantly moving, piloting the craft and adjusting its rudders in response to wind conditions. Unlike the rudders for other kinds of aircraft, manipulating the blimp’s rudders can require 50 pounds of force… imagine driving a car while being actively engaged in an active stair-stepper workout!

Photo 7

Ascending to cruising altitude…

Unlike traveling by car, boat, or helicopter, even for passengers the ride is a uniquely physical experience. The blimp’s taking off and ascent are very different; it feels more like being released than being launched, and the acceleration is much more subtle. One doesn’t really ride in a blimp — one rides on it, strapped by cables to a lumbering and sometimes restless craft that’s continuously responding to the wind’s changing currents.

Photo 9

Glimpsing New Orleans on the horizon. Most aerial photos are shared by ground crew members; I shared this one while in-fight!

During take-off, the previously relaxed ground crew shifts gears dramatically, become active and wholly-focused, their actions appearing almost choreographed. Upon landing, the physical challenge of anchoring the blimp to its mast was also evident — the crew was literally pulling the blimp down, holding it in position — and their engagement was equally precise.

When the craft was aloft and cruising, I found that my body was actively compensating for the slight bobbling sensation resulting from the craft’s interaction with the surrounding atmosphere. Although I would guess that those who fly the blimp regularly become accustomed to these sensations, I enjoyed how it felt — it engaged my senses more fully and actively. I can’t imagine not considering each flight to be its own adventure.

Photo 9a

Steering the blimp lakeside in preparation for returning from flight.

I asked Chief Pilot Capek about any particularly adventurous flights and he chuckled, replying that the adventures usually happened while the crew was on the ground in the different cities they visit. He noted that flights are usually routine, and that he frequently listens to talk radio or sometimes music while flying, as many of us do while working at desks in offices.

The ground crew, preparing for the return landing wrangling and once again tethering the blimp to its mast.

As I remembered watching the blimp in flight last year, I’d jokingly asked if those aboard were ever tempted to stray from the route and go on a renegade joyride? One crew member replied that it’s always interesting to see the crowds of people attending an event, the stadiums filled to capacity, and the tailgating parties forming a living kaleidoscope below. In urban environments, with the ebb and flow of the city below and the changing sky, it’s never the same flight twice — even when the blimp is traveling in a repetitive route.

Unless the DIRECTV lightship is flying above an urban environment, Chief Pilot Capek noted that most of the terrain is typically fields or forests with few distinguishing features. He described his favorite time aloft as being when he’s on an “exposure flight” (brief flights with the lightsign display active) over the waters of South Florida’s coast, enjoying calm conditions; it was my impression that these excursions qualify as his personal version of a “joyride.”

Photo 13

New Orleans glittering below the blimp during the 2012 BCS Championship. (Photo by DIRECTV Blimp.)

Returning to the city from the airport, I again watched as the blimp sailed above me on its return trip to the city to shoot scenic footage for various Super Bowl related broadcasts. Driving brought me back to ground immediately… I was more acutely aware of each stop sign and traffic light. And I smiled, amused that the blimp had arrived before me.

Watch for the scenic footage shot last Friday by the DIRECTV blimp on ESPN’s Dan Patrick show 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM. The blimp will also provide live coverage of the Dan Patrick show and the Artie Lang show on DIRECTV’s Audience network (Channel 239) throughout the week.

Everyone’s also invited to attend the 7th Annual DIRECTV Celebrity Beach Bowl at Mardi Gras World, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place on Saturday, February 2, 2013 beginning at 9:00 AM! This event is open to the public and it’s free! However, space is limited — so please arrive early to join the fun!

(My sincere thanks to Gus Fernandez, Chief Pilot Jeff Capek, and the exceptional crew of the DIRECTV blimp for their time and this amazing experience!)

Photo 12

Living the dream! (Photo by DIRECTV Blimp.)

How many Mayors does it take to fix a busted streetlight?

Photo by Grace Wilson @GraceLovesNOLA — used with permission.

I’m sensing a recurring trend with regard to our city officials’ modus operandi… Long-overdue sewerage system repairs needed? Pass the cost on to ratepayers’ bills to the tune of a 114% cumulative increase over eight years’ time! Broken streetlights? Hike the Entergy bill $24-36 per year with no clearly articulated and documented plan for implementation or proposed sunset date!

On Tuesday, 1/8/13, the New Orleans City Council’s Public Works Committee convened a single-subject meeting: to hear the initial proposal regarding a requested addition to the city’s Entergy franchise fee. I was relieved that several of our Councilmembers questioned the proposal outright and indicated that this matter requires additional scrutiny.

Areas of particular concern included potential savings to be realized through increased energy efficiency and if such savings could be leveraged to decrease maintenance costs as a recurring revenue stream. Councilmember Susan Guidry also questioned whether this proposed increase to the franchise fee was even legal.

“‘We’ve got a lot of numbers in here,’ council member Stacy Head said, referring to the presentation made Tuesday. ‘But, I’m unable to extract from these numbers exactly what we’re going to do.'” Council President Head also requested that when this matter is discussed before this committee again, the proposal be structured in the manner of a grade school student’s mathematical word problem to best demonstrate the impact of the improvements and long-term savings to be realized. Council President Head and District C Councilmember Kristin Palmer both stated that they’d prefer see a “sunset” provision for the possible increase.

Reportedly Mayor Mitch Landrieu pitched the idea of an increased Entergy franchise fee when he presented his proposed 2013 budget late last year. In a recent interview, he stated, “‘At the end of the day it’s the people of New Orleans who pay for everything, whether you pay it through taxes or Entergy bill,’ said Landrieu. ‘It’s the people of New Orleans who either get the service or don’t have the services.'” The issue of streetlight repairs and maintenance has been a struggle for the Landrieu Administration from the start — the opening gambit in addressing this problem was to award new contracts in 2011, early in the Mayor’s term, when budgetary issues concerning this need were already known to exist.

During the committee meeting last Tuesday, Council President Head was surprised to discover that the recently-approved 2013 budget did not include any allocations for streetlight repairs, replacement, or maintenance. In a carefully neutral manner, she stated, “In our budget we did not allow one dime for the routine maintenance and replacement of ligh tbulbs. This reveals a flaw in our budget process.” It was my impression that her remark was a subtle calling-out of the Administration’s abysmal failure to include maintenance costs for something so obvious.

As I understand it, the Administration submits a budget to the City Council and the Council gets to ask questions and nibble at its edges, but the Administration essentially calls the shots from the get-go. The Council gets to appropriate money to various departments, but the departments — regardless of what they told the Council in their written proposals or during the budget hearings — has total control over the spending once approved.

While the Council appropriates lump sums, the Administration, via its departments, has absolute control after that point, with no reconciliation after the fact. All the Council can do is wring their hands and call the appropriate officials to committee meetings (who seem to sometimes simply ignore such calls); the Council has no means of recourse except to try and reign them in next annual budget session.

The budget for the Department of Public Works was likely submitted by Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan, the Director of Public Works for the City of New Orleans… but under this Administration, it seems that all decisions run through Mayor Landrieu without fail; any delegation of authority is illusory. Accordingly, this would mean that Mayor Landrieu himself is even more responsible than your run-of-the-mill executive with regard to this so-called”flaw” in the budgeting process.

(It was interesting, too, that a City of New Orleans press release regarding streetlight repairs was issued mere minutes prior to the start of the Public Works Committee meeting.)

If our city’s so-called “Cultural Economy” is so profitable, why is our city reportedly broke (without funding available for, oh, consistent ordinance enforcement efforts), resulting in our City’s Administration holding its hand out yet again, demanding more from New Orleanians?

These rate increases, added fees, and tacked-on charges hit those living on fixed incomes the hardest, and there are no checks or balances in place to determine if these rate increases and surcharges are being spent appropriately and wisely.

I think it’s time for Mayor Landrieu to start doing more with less… I propose that this begins with appropriation the Office of Cultural Economy’s slush fund and applying it to infrastructure repairs.

(As a friend quipped the other day about the Mayor’s recent press release and fanfare regarding the 2012’s record 61 film projects in New Orleans, “The mayor complains about state budget cuts, yet lauds the tax credit that is, in part, responsible.”)

While discussing the potential increase, another friend suggested, “I’d also like see his senior staff donate those whack overtime payments [from the Hurricane Isaac work period] to the Save Our Sons campaign” to be applied to the actually provision of support services (mental health counseling and support, job training, etc.). And another added, “What sort of turn around time in repairs can we expect with that significant of a rate hike? Twenty-four hours?”

I suggest, too, that there is more that our City Council could do, as a body, to counteract some of the b.s. in general and the budgeting flaws in particular. To date during the current Administration, it appears that our Councilmembers have been pitted against one another through Mayor Landrieu’s adept application of a “divide and conquer” strategy. If a solid majority of the Council bands together to act independently, I believe that real and significant progress could be made — now is the time!

In June 2011, as part of a project to create action reports regarding particular problems in the French Quarter, I took a series of photographs to document several of the most seriously damaged or missing streetlights. While some have been repaired or replaced, it appears that several remain damaged and non-functional. Below are a series of “Then” and “Now” photographs for your consideration.

The Landrieu Administration has claimed that all of the backlog of damaged and non-functional streetlights have been repaired and that current outages and other problems which arose during this past year were the result of new causal factors, such as Hurricane Isaac. I believe that this is mistaken at best (possibly even duplicitous), as demonstrated by the “then” and “now” photos below.

Corner of Chartres & Toulouse Streets on 6/1/2011

Same corner on 1/9/2013 (Now with cheap Mardi Gras bead detailing!)

Corner of Royal & Iberville Streets on 6/1/2011

Same location on 1/9/2013 (One Shell Square had temporarily disappeared into the fog.)

225 Decatur Street on 6/1/2011

Same location on 1/9/2013 (Possibly repaired and damaged in the extreme again?)

Lamppost at 1012 Governor Nicholls with missing panel in its base on 6/1/2011

Same location on 1-9-2013 (Apparently this repair was considered to be “good enough for government work!”)

Additionally, French Quarter lampposts that are knocked down are not being repaired or replaced. At last count, there are 17 missing lampposts, a circumstance that impacts the safety of all who visit or reside in the Quarter. The following is a particularly noteworthy location of this type: On Sunday, October 16, 2011, NOPD officers found 37-year old murder victim Dr. Brent Hachfeld, an optometrist from Slidell, lying prone and bleeding from the back of his head near the corner of Dauphine and Dumaine Streets (more than four months after the photo on the left was taken at that same location).

Uptown/Lakeside corner of Dauphine and Dumaine Streets on 6/1/2011 — lamppost missing, wires exposed.

Same location on 1/9/2013 (Note: This corner was repaved as part of the Paths to Progress project. Unlike other locations with missing lampposts, at least this one wasn’t paved over.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One final discrepancy worth noting (a punchline, if you will): A significantly damaged lamppost in the French Quarter serves as the home of a well-documented geocache that was created in July 2007… I know this because I found and logged its location just last week. I also know for a fact that this particular lamppost was included in the listing of damaged streetlights reported in June 2011. To say that all of the city’s broken streetlights were repaired prior to the start of 2013 is simply untrue.