By Richard Thompson, The New Orleans Advocate
The former Louisiana ArtWorks building at Howard Avenue and Carondelet Street may soon change hands again for the second time in two years.
The likely buyer: the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, whose governing board voted Wednesday to move ahead with plans to purchase the nearly 94,000-square-foot building a block from Lee Circle for $8 million.
The likely tenant: the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute, which bought the building in 2014 but has faced numerous delays in getting its planned project off the ground.
The institute is backed by a group of culinary and hospitality industry leaders, including restaurateur Ti Martin of Commander's Palace and chef John Besh.
It paid $6.2 million for the five-story building with the idea of opening a world-class culinary teaching facility in it, but the onetime furniture store remains vacant.
Already, the Convention Center's board is responsible for managing the 1.1-million-square-foot exhibition hall and is in the midst of negotiating a potentially $1.5 billion development project upriver from the center.
But on Wednesday, the board voted to take on another project, granting President Melvin Rodrigue the authority to finalize a deal to purchase the Howard Avenue property — a move he said was being done at Gov. John Bel Edwards' urging.
Rodrigue, the president of Galatoire's restaurant, said the culinary initiative will help bolster the workforce of one of the city's biggest economic drivers, its world-renowned restaurants.
Under the proposed terms that were outlined Wednesday, the Convention Center will spend $12 million on the building, including $8 million in cash to take possession of it and $4 million for future improvements.
Rodrigue said the property was recently appraised for nearly $13 million. The board voted Wednesday to move ahead with the deal pending a second appraisal.
Initially, the Convention Center will lease the building to NOCHI for four years, he said. During that time, the culinary institute will need to raise several million more dollars in order to open.
If NOCHI is unable to do so, the Convention Center can evaluate other options for the property, Rodrigue said.
Assuming the institute can get the needed money together, the Convention Center is considering a lease of about 40 years, he said. The deal will include language stipulating how many hospitality workers will be trained annually at the institute, he said.
It also will require that meeting space and auditoriums at the facility be available to the Convention Center "on a mutually agreed-upon basis," he said, a factor that he said was a sticking point for the board's involvement.
"We are definitely in need of labor pool and workforce," Rodrigue said. "This was the major passion of the governor and the reason he wanted to pursue this workforce development component."
The board is still finalizing key documents tied to the deal, he said.
If the deal is finalized, NOCHI is looking at a fall 2018 opening date, according to institute board member Edgar Chase III.
Chase said steep cuts in state higher education funding in recent years hampered the group's ability to partner with public colleges and universities in opening the institute, as it had hoped. The group's website lists Delgado Community College and the University of New Orleans, as well as Tulane University, as partners.
"It's going to be all-hands-on-deck to raise the money, and we're committed to doing that," said Chase, whose mother, Leah Chase, runs Dooky Chase's Restaurant.
The ill-fated ArtWorks project, conceived by the Arts Council of New Orleans, has long been seen as a boondoggle. Despite receiving financial backing from the city and state as well as private investors, the $25 million project was in debt almost from the time it opened more than a decade ago.
The Louisiana Artists Guild, which was created in the mid-1990s to construct and manage the property, selected NOCHI from a group of three finalists to take over control of the property after ArtWorks closed.
A board member for one of the other finalists, the proposed Louisiana Civil Rights Museum, raised questions about the latest process Wednesday, noting that his group had previously offered about $2 million more for the property than NOCHI had.
"My clients will take all legal measures that they can or are available to them to ensure that this structure is built and that the city gets the kind of museum it deserves," Ernest Jones told the Convention Center board.
In an interview after the meeting, Rodrigue noted that his agency didn't make the original selection of NOCHI as the building's buyer.
However, he called the culinary institute a natural partner for the Convention Center authority "because they're representing the hospitality and tourism industry, and the backbone of this authority and its funding comes from taxes raised by the hospitality and tourism industry."