Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Slow going for Historic district agency

Seven months after it was created by the Legislature, the board of a French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny "management district" held its first meeting Monday. Members soon found that getting a government agency up and running can be slow going.

After taking care of housekeeping matters such as setting a tentative schedule of meetings and drawing lots to see how long each member's term will be, the 13-member board failed even to elect officers or establish committees.

With the board's next meeting two weeks away, it was left unclear whether the group will have enough time to formulate detailed plans for the next fiscal year that can win legislative approval -- and appropriations -- during the spring session.

In approving the concept of the management district last year, the Legislature gave it only $50,000, much too little to accomplish any major goals.

The idea behind the French Quarter-Marigny Historic Area Management District is that it would be a counterpart to the Downtown Development District on the other side of Canal Street, funneling money to infrastructure improvements and enhanced government services.

When New Orleans political and business leaders created the Downtown Development District in the 1970s, the French Quarter opted out. Suspicious of those backing the new group and fearful that it would have a pro-development, anti-preservation stance, French Quarter residents saw to it that the new district reached no farther downriver than Iberville Street.

In the intervening decades, the idea of extending the DDD to include the Quarter, or of creating a new agency or tax district to upgrade services in the city's most historic neighborhood, was raised several times. But it foundered each time on the shoals of Quarterites' distrust of city leaders and opposition to higher taxes, or on rivalries among the Quarter's various factions: residents versus shop owners versus hoteliers.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and with the support of Mayor Ray Nagin and the city's hospitality industry, the various factions got together last year.

They won approval for an agency that, in the words of the enabling legislation, is to help the French Quarter repair its post-Katrina "tarnished world image." The agency is supposed to revive the Quarter's slumping tourism industry "by improving the safety and quality of life of its visitors and residents, restoring its damaged or missing infrastructure, addressing its parking and mobility concerns, beautifying its appearance, and making it more appealing and inviting for its patrons," the legislation says.

Besides the traditional boundaries of the French Quarter, the district includes properties on the lake side of North Rampart Street and the downriver side of Esplanade Avenue, plus a two-block-wide swath of Faubourg Marigny centered on the Frenchmen Street entertainment and commercial district.

Among the projects the law says the agency can support are sidewalk improvements, public restrooms, incentives to utilize vacant buildings or upper floors, crime-prevention cameras, graffiti removal, "lighting and signage upgrades," solutions to parking problems, "beautifying the district," and "revitalizing and nurturing cultural and historical features, and preserving tourism."

Nagin and some others who pushed for creation of the agency expected it to affiliate with the Downtown Development District, and the legislation specifically authorizes the new board to sign a contract with the DDD for "administration, management and operation services." But that expectation grew out of an assumption that the agency would have a substantial budget.

Those planning the district rejected the idea of a special tax millage, such as the DDD imposes. Instead, under a bill introduced by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, the board would have received almost 1 cent of the 4-cent sales tax the state receives on all purchases within the district's boundaries, amounting to nearly $7 million a year.

But for various reasons, such as the lack of definite plans for how the money would be spent, the sales tax provision failed to win support from key legislators or Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration. It was dropped from the final version of the bill, and the new agency was given only $50,000 for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The Legislature passed the bill creating the agency in June and Blanco signed it July 6, but it then took several months for all the organizations represented on the board to nominate members.

The New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association has two representatives. Groups with a single appointment are the Vieux Carre Commission, two groups of French Quarter residents, the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the French Quarter Business Association, the Bourbon Street Merchants Association and the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition, the mayor gets two selections, one resident and one business owner, and the City Council member from District C gets one pick.

Ten of the 13 members met Monday for more than two hours. They decided to meet again Feb. 11 and then monthly through at least July, as the board tries to get established and decide what financial requests, if any, to present to the legislative session starting March 31.