Jindal veto cripples riverfront plan, bill’s author says

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s veto of a bill authorizing the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to issue bonds to finance expansion projects could cripple the grand plan for riverfront development being pushed by the tourism industry, the measure’s author said.

House Bill 516 provided the legal and financial underpinning for a series of construction projects and infrastructure improvements, including development of a riverfront “festival park,” a privately developed hotel and a “people mover” system along and around Convention Center Boulevard.

Those projects, and others, are part of The Tricentennial Plan, a five-year blueprint for growing tourism demand that was introduced by the hospitality industry earlier this year.

In a five-line explanation issued Friday, Jindal said the bill would have put pressure on the state’s borrowing power.

“The bill would allow for the first time the (convention center) authority to use nontraditional tax-free bonds that would benefit any properties being developed by commercial, private entities and the bonded debt could count against the state debt limit,” Jindal wrote. “In addition, this project could be funded through the capital outlay bill.”

Without the legislation, millions of dollars in construction and infrastructure projects are in limbo, said the bill’s author, Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

“The biggest problem with the governor’s veto of the convention center bill is it stalls all of the redevelopment,” Leger said.

Leger also called the governor’s interpretation of the measure erroneous, insisting that the convention center alone would be responsible for its bonded indebtedness.

Jindal’s veto comes at the conclusion of a legislative session in which the governor lost a bid to plug a hole in the state budget with $100 million from the convention center reserve fund. Jindal was beaten back by tourism industry leaders and local legislators who said the money, generated from New Orleans hotel and restaurant taxes, should remain in the city.

A coalition of tourism industry leaders later said that it was “strongly opposed” to the use of the convention center’s financial reserves for any purpose other than convention center and hospitality infrastructure development.

“We consider any reallocations or taking to violate sound public and fiscal policy, and to be violative of all agreements with the hotel and restaurant industry that led to the enactment of the taxes, and very likely the law as well,” the Tricentennial Consortium said.

The consortium is meeting this week to discuss the impact of Jindal’s veto on the grand plan and on the group’s specific proposal to redevelop the World Trade Center site.

The consortium, made up of the same tourism leaders who are behind the Tricentennial Plan, has proposed demolishing the building at the foot of Canal and Poydras streets and building a signature structure, akin to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, in its place.

The proposal is one of three plans for the building the city will consider at a public meeting next month.

In its proposal to the city, the group said that its demolition project is in “conjunction with the overall re-envisioned” plan for property surrounding the convention center.

The convention center, a member of the consortium, would bring the “resources to commit to an immediate cash injection of $25 million” to begin the demolition of the site, according to the proposal.

Convention Center chairman Melvin Rodrigue said he could not comment on the impact of the veto on the consortium’s bid Monday because tourism industry leaders had not yet met to discuss it.

Tricentennial Consortium members are planning to gather this week “to discuss the process and our next steps,” said Mark Romig, chief executive officer of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, which like the convention center is part of the consortium.

The Tricentennial Consortium also includes leaders from the Audubon Nature Institute, the Multicultural Tourism Network, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and SMG, which manages the Dome.

A five-member selection committee, led by Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, is scheduled to meet next month to discuss the World Trade Center proposals.

Leger said he didn’t believe the veto would affect the consortium’s bid.

“The mistake is thinking this bill is somehow essential to the WTC development; it’s not,” Leger said.

“While the two have a connection, the WTC project is totally a separate, RFP process. As far as I’m concerned, the veto doesn’t impact that.”