Legislators claim bill to renovate Holy Rosary Institute ‘hijacked’

Two state representatives who sponsored legislation this session for $200,000 a year in state funds for the redevelopment of the historic Holy Rosary Institute said Friday that the bill was “hijacked” and amended beyond recognition by their senate counterparts in the Acadiana delegation.

State Reps. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, and Vincent Pierre, D- Lafayette, said Friday that they opted to pull the bill rather than work to salvage it in the final hours of the Legislative session, which ended Thursday.

“This bill was hijacked,” Pierre said at a news conference Friday at the site of the Holy Rosary Institute on Carmel Drive.

Pierre referenced amendments made to the legislation on the floor of the Senate Wednesday that removed the dedication of funds to Holy Rosary and instead set up a competitive grants process for that would be open to any proposed historic restoration project in Lafayette Parish.

State Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, one four Acadiana-area senators who signed off the amendments to the Holy Rosary legislation, said he was concerned that there was not enough local input on the bill as originally proposed.

The Holy Rosary Institute opened in 1913 and served a black student population of local children and boarding students from across the country through the decades of segregation.

Holy Rosary closed in 1993 and the three-story brick schoolhouse has been crumbling in on itself, prompting the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation to list the school as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state.

“This institute is a symbol of hope. It’s a symbol of what’s right with this community,” Landry said.

Under the legislation as originally proposed, the Holy Rosary restoration project would have received $200,000 a year from a rebate the state pays back to Lafayette Parish from the four-cent state sales tax on hotel and motel bills.

The annual rebate has varied between $1.5 million and $3 million in recent years, and most of that money goes to the Cajundome to pay construction debt and for routine maintenance and upgrades.

Guillory said he was concerned that Landry and Pierre had discussed the proposed legislation with him or other local senators and that Cajundome officials were also caught off guard.

“Normally in this business, if it is gong to impact someone, you talk with them in advance,” Guillory said.

Landry said that he didn’t feel, as an elected representative, that he needed pre-approval for the legislation from anybody.

“It’s that we didn’t go get vetted by the powers of Lafayette,” he said of the bill’s failure.

As amended by the Senate, the first priority for the tax rebate money in question would have been the Cajundome’s annual debt payments, followed by a $200,000 payment to the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission to fund grants for museums, promoting tourism and restoring historic sites and buildings.

Any additional money after those obligations were met would have gone back to the Cajundome up to a cap of $3 million.

If the $3 million cap were reached, another $100,000 would have been set aside for the LCVC grants, according the legislation as amended by the Senate.

The Holy Rosary restoration project would not have been promised any money under the legislation but would compete with any other groups seeking grant funding through LCVC.

Under the Senate amendment, any nonprofit group awarded grant funding through LCVC would be required to provide a 100 percent match to that funding.

Guillory said the requirement of a match would ensure “that if someone came to ask for money, they would have skin in the game.”

The amendments were signed off on by Sens. Guillory; Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; Fred Mills-R-Parks; and Jonathan Perry. R-Kaplan.

The Senate approved the Holy Rosary legislation with amendments on Wednesday by a vote of 36-0.

Mills said there seems to be much support for restoring Holy Rosary but different opinions on how to it.

“Everybody on this house side and enough of us on the senate side were trying to make this work, and I think the clock just ran out on them,” he said.

Pierre and Landry could have tried this week to undo or to temper the Senate amendments, but they said that, facing a deadline of Thursday, they opted to pull the legislation and work to bring in back next year.

“I am going to bring this bill back until this building is put back into the economy and back into this city,” said Pierre, a 1983 graduate of Holy Rosary.

A group formed several years ago to raise money for restoration efforts at Holy Rosary but has struggled to find funding for a planned project to transform the old school into a community center, with a museum, health care clinic and education facilities.

Landry has estimated that from $2 million to $3 million would be needed to redevelop the property.