Proposal for New Orleans hospitality district with taxing authority to be discussed

Posted on: April 16 2012
French Quarter Management to hold meeting...

April 16, 2012

By Bruce Eggler, The Times Picayune

The board of the French Quarter Management District, a 5-year-old state agency, will hold a special meeting Tuesday to discuss several bills in the Legislature that would create a New Orleans Hospitality and Entertainment District with the authority to impose new taxes. The meeting will be from 10 a.m. to noon in the Esplanade Room of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, 621 St. Louis St.

The new district would be a political subdivision of the state and would tentatively include the French Quarter, Marigny Triangle, Treme, Central Business District and Warehouse District.

The initial purpose of the new district would be to accept and spend a $30 million donation from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to be used for improving infrastructure in the designated neighborhoods.

Beyond the $30 million, the proposed new agency would have the power to levy new taxes within the district such as on hotel rooms, restaurant and nightclub sales, and parking.

It could direct the added tax revenue to specified purposes, including further infrastructure improvements, tourism promotion and advertising, and other activities to make the city's prime tourist areas more appealing to visitors, such as by enhancing public safety and sanitation.

The activities of the new agency would be overseen by a board on which tourism and related businesses would have a majority of the seats, on the assumption that most -- though not all -- of the new taxes would be paid by tourists.

Leaders of two organizations that have expressed skepticism about the proposal -- French Quarter Citizens and Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates -- said they met recently with the lawmakers who have proposed the bills, Sens. Ed Murray and J.P. Morrell and Rep. Helena Moreno.

President Carol Allen of VCPORA and President Tom Bissell of French Quarter Citizens said they were "assured that these bills would not go forward unless ... all the stakeholders (are) on board," including people who live and work in the French Quarter.

In an open letter, Allen and Bissell said: "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?"

The board of the French Quarter Management District, which includes both residents and tourism and other business representatives, is expected to discuss possible amendments that could make the current hospitality district proposal more acceptable to at least some residents.

The Convention Center board voted last month to contribute up to $30 million to an effort to refurbish the French Quarter and a larger "hospitality zone" in advance of next year's Super Bowl. The money would be used to repair and improve streets, sidewalks, signage and lighting before the game, which will be played in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2013.

Tourism and business leaders have been seeking ways for years to put more money into sprucing up the Quarter and nearby areas. Creation of the French Quarter Management District in 2007 was itself such an effort, but that agency has never received enough money to do very much.

In 2010, French Quarter voters, traditionally suspicious of government, voted down a proposed security district that would have taken in about $1 million a year in property fees to spend on private security patrols in the roughly 100-block neighborhood. Although most of the money would have come from business owners, only residents registered to vote in the Quarter could cast ballots.

Among those supporting the proposed hospitality district is Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

"The mayor and the hospitality industry have been working closely together to develop a public-private partnership that will enable us to dramatically improve the infrastructure, security, sanitation and marketing of the city's hospitality zone in preparation for next year's Super Bowl," Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said last month. "This will benefit all residents of the city as the hospitality zone is our 'front door' and it will allow us to provide extra police protection downtown, which ensures that other regions of the city are staffed appropriately."