May 21, 2013
A measure allowing the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to enter into private partnerships and help finance a massive project on the New Orleans riverfront couldn't muster enough support to pass the House on Tuesday. Rep. Walt Leger, who sponsored the bill, argued it would allow for a needed revitalization of the area, but skeptics argued against using bonds to finance a private development.
The bill's failure to pass does not end the effort, however. Leger, D-New Orleans, said he expects to bring the bill back to the floor soon for a second try.
House Bill 516 allows for the partnerships and allows the Convention Center to issue bonds to finance the project. Those bonds would be repaid using the hotel and motel taxes that already flow to the Convention Center.
However, some lawmakers took issue with the idea of using bonds issued by a state-created agency to pay for a private project. "We're going to change the law so we can use public financing on a private hotel deal," Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe said.
Morris also pressed Leger on whether he knew of any private firms that would benefit from the proposal. Leger said he did not know of a specific developer that would benefit.
Others said they worried that, because the state is ultimately responsible for the Convention Center, Louisiana taxpayers would be on the hook should it be unable to pay down the bonds. "We're talking about $200 million in debt that wasn't really fleshed out enough," Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said after the debate. "We can't keep spending until we control our (financial) problems."
House members voted 43 to 36 in favor of the bill. But the measure required 53 votes, a majority of House members, to pass.
Leger said he plans to bring the bill back for another vote, technically known as a "reconsideration," this week and noted that 26 members were not in the chamber on the first attempt. "I feel confident we'll pass it on reconsideration," he said.
The measure would give the go-ahead for one of several projects proposed for a mile-long section of the riverfront, running from the vacant World Trade Center to a piece of property upriver of the Convention Center.
Three firms responded to a request for proposals issued by the Convention Center. Those plans are now being reviewed by the New Orleans Building Corp., a city agency, and each provides a different view of the development:
- Gatehouse Capital Corp., a national real estate investment and development firm from Dallas, would redevelop the 33-story World Trade Center as a W Hotel and apartment building. The plan also would include the construction of a "Tricentennial Sky Wheel," a Ferris wheel, at Spanish Plaza and new civic spaces on the riverfront.
- The Tricentennial Consortium, a coalition of tourism leaders and organizations including the convention center, would demolish the World Trade Center and replace it with a major new piece of public art that the designers said would be on a par with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. An initial design, which architects stressed was only one of many possible ideas, would replace the building with a 400-foot tower with an observation deck at the top. That plan also calls for creation of public spaces around the site and possibly the creation of a National Wetlands Center.
- John H. Burch of Clifton, Va., has proposed converting most of the office tower into a hotel and resort, with four floors used as office spaces and additional space used for residential units. Burch said he wants to reserve about four floors of the building for foreign consulates. This plan also calls for creating a "World Plaza" in the building's first three floors and projecting a film about the history and people of New Orleans onto an outdoor screen.