Jefferson Parish arts center project entering final phase

The ongoing saga of the still-incomplete Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center may be entering its final phase, following an agreement intended to settle up and complete a project that bedeviled the parish for six years.

After months of negotiations, the Parish Council reached a new agreement with contractor J. Caladera Co. Inc. It clears the way for the project to be completed by summer 2014 at more than twice the $26.5 million price-tag it originally carried.

With most of the money already sunk into a project that has dogged multiple administrations and council terms, Jefferson Parish President John Young said the least bad option for the parish was to push to get the center up and running on Airline Drive.

“A worse approach, with all the money we have invested in it, would be to not complete it,” Young said.

After discussing the deal in executive session Wednesday, the Parish Council unanimously approved the agreement and shelved an alternative measure by Council Chairman Chris Roberts that would have declared Caldarera in default.

Plans for the performing arts center were put in motion more than a decade ago. Construction began in 2007 and immediately ran into problems.

The parish and state have already poured $44 million into the project, much of that to correct issues with construction plans drawn up by its original architects, Wiznia & Associates, and to deal with code and other issues.

A scathing report from the state Legislative Auditor’s Office two years ago found problems including major design issues, questionable procedures for selecting the original architect, slipshod accounting that lead to multiple payments on the same invoices and a failure to have Code Enforcement or the State Fire Marshal’s Office check the plans, which could have preempted expensive and time-consuming changes during the process.

All those issues led to the approval of seven “change orders,” alterations to the original construction contracts.

The agreement is contingent on the approval of an eighth change order that company owner Joe Caldarera said is necessary to finally complete the 86,600-square-foot, 1,050-seat facility.

Caldarera said the need for the change orders, which include 508 revisions in all, are the reason for the long delay and high final price tag of the center.

“Much of the change has to do with the regulatory requirements to get the building to open,” he said.

That agreement would include a $9.75 million payment, broken into three parts, that would compensate for changes to the construction and compensate Caldarera for work already done.

About $6.8 million of the payments will come from state funds, with the rest ponied up by the parish.

That $3 million will make up the first payment and Young said he believed the parish was working to get that money together and would have it ready by the end of the month.

The payments would be the last the parish would agree to make on the project, barring further problems discovered during inspections of the facility by the Fire Marshal’s Office or hurricane damage.

It also provides that the parish will defend Caldarera should the agreement and its ties to the change order come under scrutiny from officials.

Caldarera said Wednesday that clause was there because of concerns that state bid laws do not account for agreements that go beyond the scope of a traditional change order.

Young said parish and state officials have not raised any concerns about the agreement.

While the council approved the agreement Wednesday, it must still clear two procedural hurdles before going into effect.

The agreement must be reviewed by an oversight panel and then the council must then give it final approval. Officials expect that vote to come at the next Parish Council meeting later this month.

Caldarera said he doesn’t foresee any issues going forward and both he and Young noted that work has been continuing on the site even without a final agreement in place.

“The only prudent thing to do at this point is move through to completion of the project,” Young said.