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In the Zone

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The New Orleans Hospitality Zone was originally announced in November 2011 by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in anticipation of an unprecedented series of major tourism events that would culminate in the 2013 Super Bowl. As originally unveiled, the zone encompassed a wide swath from the Superdome through the Warehouse District and CBD, down through the French Quarter and Marigny Triangle just past Frenchmen Street. Landrieu, City Council members and tourism officials promised to clean up the area in the coming year — something that's sorely needed — and New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas was instructed to "enforce all the laws on the books" in the zone. All in all, it sounded like a good plan.

  But, as is always the case, the devil is in the details. As originally proposed, Senate Bill 573 by New Orleans Sen. Ed Murray would place management of the proposed zone under a new entity called the New Orleans Hospitality and Entertainment District (not to be confused with the zone itself). The district's 10 commissioners would include six from the hospitality industry and four appointed by Landrieu — "all of whom shall have substantial business interests related directly to tourism in the hospitality zone," according to the bill. Non-business interests and residents were not part of the original bill. That was a major defect.

  The board would be authorized to collect an additional 1.75 percent hotel tax in the zone, with the first 1.5 percent being split between the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (TMC) and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). If the remaining .25 percent tax were levied, it would go to "the district in furtherance of its purposes" — presumably for infrastructure, lighting and public safety. An additional .25 percent (quarter-penny) tax on food and beverages and a 1 percent tax on hotel overnight parking in the Hospitality Zone would also go to the district rather than the marketing boards.

  The legislation initially provided that all contracts let by the District would have to go to public bid, but only after the 2013 Super Bowl, an idea that rightly aroused suspicion. Quarter and Marigny residents, who were not consulted before the plan was drafted, likewise balked at what they saw as a high-handed attempt to remake their neighborhoods without public input. At a May 7 public meeting, representatives of French Quarter Citizens, Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, the Historic Faubourg Treme Association and the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (FMIA) all spoke against the plan. The Marigny group asked to be excluded from the zone.

  Now the bill is poised to change significantly — we think for the better. A series of amendments, which could be considered in committee this Thursday (May 17), would split the 1.75 percent hotel tax revenues evenly among the CVB, the TMC and the city. Marigny has been removed from the zone, which now stops at Esplanade Avenue. And the appointed commissioners would become an Advisory Committee to help the city decide how to spend its share of the funds. The new board would grow from 10 to 14; instead of four mayoral appointees, it would have three — a deputy mayor, a French Quarter resident and a hotelier. Equally important, the committee would be subject to the state's open meetings and public records laws.

  One part of the plan that has not changed is the immediate infusion of $40 million in improvements between now and Super Bowl Sunday. Three-fourths of that $40 million would come from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center board by way of its cash surplus; another $10 million would come from the city via federal Community Development Block Grants. That's a lot of money for much-needed street and sidewalk repairs as well as improved drainage, signage, lighting and landscaping.

  Landrieu says the improvements will be seen in all corners of the zone, particularly the French Quarter. The zone's expanded tax base will bring millions more every year. The hotel tax is expected to yield more than $12.8 million a year; the hotel overnight parking tax, $300,000; the quarter-penny food and beverage tax, $1.75 million; and an additional 1.75 percent hotel tax at the Hyatt Regency, $1 million. That's a total of almost $15.9 million a year for the zone.

  The legislative session ends June 4. That leaves lawmakers, the hospitality industry, City Hall and residents little time to resolve lingering issues. We think the proposed amendments address the most pressing concerns, and we hope that going forward all "stakeholders" will be included in discussions of the Hospitality Zone — because it's also a residential zone.

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