Setting the Stage



Not every plan offered in an election campaign is realistic or comes close to fruition. Roger Wilson didn't even win in his campaign for city councilman at large in 2006, but the most remarkable part of his platform, an idea to rebuild Canal Street as a theater district known as Broadway South, is getting closer to becoming law, the lynchpin that will open the door to rebuilding the city by attracting private investment.

Broadway South has grown into a statewide plan to pull in investments and build entertainment industry throughout the state. Wilson has secured letters of interest from some of the biggest live-theater producers in the country and presented an update on the progress of the plan at a meeting with state legislators, city council members and tourism, arts and business representatives last week.

"When you incentivize the producers, the producers will come," Wilson told the crowd. He and Broadway South supporter Bill Hines of Jones Walker returned from meetings in New York with executives from HBO and theater companies like Shubert, Nederlander Organization and Columbia Artists Entertainmet, which produce shows for Broadway and producers like Aldo Sracfani (Stomp, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Matthew Rego (Wicked). "There's a knowledge problem. In New York, people need to know there's opportunity here. When they hear about these incentives, they're interested."

Wilson is winning the support of three key groups that could come together to create new industry and jobs in Louisiana. His Broadway South plan calls for the state to pass theater tax credits to set the stage for investors to build and open theaters and producers to present live entertainment. Combined with Federal Go Zone tax credits, passed to help specified areas of Louisiana and Mississippi recover following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, investors would have significant market incentives to open theaters in Louisiana. Production companies would also have significant incentives to move operations like pre-Broadway debut previews to New Orleans from cities like Philadelphia or Boston, which offer no tax incentives.

The state tax credit gets the ball rolling, but the bigger picture beyond drawing theater productions would be to spur activity for related entertainment businesses like hotels and restaurants and to help revive the New Orleans tourism industry. Go Zone credits can apply to any industry, so the plan could potentially open the door to a wide range of new investment.

"Broadway South transcends all lines," Wilson told the crowd. "It crosses parish lines, industry lines, races lines and brings jobs to the state."

Bills have been pre-filed in the state legislature by Rep. Jeffrey Arnold and by Sen. Edwin Murray with cosponsorship from Senators Diana Bajoie, Juan LaFonta and Tom Schedler. The identical bills create incentives similar to the state's tax credits for motion pictures, sound recording and digital interactive media. The credits would apply to production, rehearsal, marketing and administration costs associated with live theater, which could include drama, comedy, opera, ballet, jazz and variety entertainment. Credits would also apply to infrastructure projects, like theater construction. The tax credits are structured to return 10 percent of base investment on projects between $15,000 and $100,000. Between $100,000 and $1 million it rises to 20 percent, and notches up to 25 percent for larger base investments. An additional 10 percent credit applies to payroll to Louisiana residents. Consideration of eligible projects also takes into account opportunities for students in the state's private and public colleges and universities.

Wilson started developing his plan during his unsuccessful run for city council in 2006. When the city was struggling to get on track towards recovery, he came up with the idea to revitalize Canal Street as a theater district. Leveraging what was already strong in the city -- a history of culture and the arts --Êhe saw it as a way to start rebuilding flooded downtown theaters, tourism and bring back jobs. (See "Leading Roles," Nov. 14, 2006). Modeling the economic plan on the success of film credits at turning Louisiana into Hollywood South showed that the idea is possible. Creation of the movie credits spurred an increase in film projects in Louisiana from $15 million to more than $400 million in less than five years.

Although theater budgets aren't as large as major motion picture budgets, the theater credit offers a more lasting effect. Theaters don't pick up and go back to Los Angeles when a production is done.

UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan attended the meeting and afterwards offered support for many aspects of the Broadway South plan. "The movie tax credits are great, but the thing with a film credit is that another state can come along and offer a better credit and the industry can go elsewhere," says Tim Ryan, " Broadway South develops the underpinnings of an industry that stays here."

Ryan added that there's already a solid base for theater locally. "You build on your strengths. We've always done well on cultural economy, and we can do it relatively cheaply. From an economic development point of view, it just makes sense." He adds that the tax credits and Go Zone incentives would allow New Orleans to compete nationally to attract the interests of massive industry players like HBO or a company like Microsoft looking to get into digital entertainment.

Speaking in support of Broadway South at the meeting were City Council members Arnold Fielkow and Stacy Head, Jefferson Parish councilman John Young, city representatives and many area legislators.

The legislation is not designed just for New Orleans, however. Bill sponsor Sen. Murray pointed out after the meeting that the impact will be statewide.

"I think we're going to have a really good response. People said the movie credit was going to be a New Orleans thing but it turned out to be just the opposite," he said. "We have 16 historic theaters throughout the state that would be affected by this."

Roger Wilson's Broadway South plan is designed to - revitalize downtown as a theater district. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Roger Wilson's Broadway South plan is designed to revitalize downtown as a theater district.

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