In The News › Metairie development district would control $1.2 million fund

Metairie development district would control $1.2 million fund

By Adriane Quinlan | The Times-Picayune

March 3, 2015

Fat City advocates are considering modeling a new taxing district on one in New Orleans, where the Downtown Development District has worked since 1974 to scrub up a 1¼-square-mile sector to attract new investment and brighten city life. On Wednesday (March 4), the Jefferson Parish Council will weigh the first step: Creating a 9-member board to oversee development in the Metairie area that includes Fat City and Lakeside Shopping Center.

An increasingly popular tool for planners, development districts create a permanent government structure to focus on a core area. They have authority to allocate public spending and to ask voters for tax increases for work in the district. “When you want to take a neighborhood to the next level, this is what you do,” Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said.

Lee-Sheng’s district includes the area under consideration: from Veterans Memorial Boulevard to West Esplanade Avenue between Causeway Boulevard and Division Street. The call for the development district came in a 2013 report by the Fat City Advisory Committee, the members of which have since hopped into a non-profit known as Fat City Friends.

A Louisiana law dating from 2008 created a tax increment financing district with the same boundaries, and Jefferson Finance Director Tim Palmatier said the fund now holds $1.2 million. The proposed development district board would have control of that money, said Fat City Friends Project Manager Warren Surcouf III.

“At Fat City Friends right now, we make recommendations. We don’t necessarily have the authority to move funds around,” Surcouf said.

The added authority would let the proposed board do everything from extending bicycle lanes and adding garbage cans to managing a fund for façade improvements, Surcouf said. It also could provide Fat City with the McGuffin that local business owners have long been hunting: a government-funded parking garage. (No promises, though: “We wouldn’t want to paint ourselves into that corner,” Surcouf said. “At the same time, we know there is an issue that needs to be resolved.”)

Development districts such as this are a trend across the United States, although the New Orleans Downtown Development District was the country’s first, said Kurt Weigle, president of the New Orleans district. “In the last 15 years, there has been a mushrooming of organizations just like ours because they have been shown to be so effective at creating and sustainable development in downtowns,” Weigle said. “I think they are on the right path, following the lead of so many places across the world,” Weigle said of Fat City boosters.

The New Orleans entity generally encompasses the Central Business District and Warehouse District. Businesses and residents there pay about 10 percent in extra property taxes, Weigle said, to ensure a higher quality of life and business.

“I think that at least partly due to the investments of the downtown district, we’ve seen $6.5 billion in new investment in downtown,” Weigle said. “We helped to create a better investment environment downtown, through cleaning, public safety and the promotion of downtown to create a place where people want to be.”

But focusing public assets in a single area has drawbacks, according to a 2008 report by a government watchdog on special tax districts in Jefferson Parish. The Bureau of Governmental Research found that a special district can redirect public money away from more urgent needs, and that even if districts are successful, they can still have a negative effect on the parish overall. The report said successful special districts might draw customers from businesses outside of their boundaries, and an increase in traffic can require more cash for infrastructure repairs, which would come from the parish general fund.

Still, focusing on the area around Fat City could help Jefferson Parish overall, said Jerry Bologna, executive director of the Jefferson Economic Development Commission. “Sometimes to put an increased focus in one area, it does benefit the parish as a whole,” Bologna said. “I think Fat City — because of its location, because of its proximity to the interstate to major thoroughfares — it provides us with a really attractive location. I think if we push this increased focus on it, it only benefits the entire parish later with increased revenues and tax collections. The whole parish stands to benefit from that.”

In Metairie, the proposed district’s governing board would be appointed by local officials. One member each would be named by the parish president, sheriff, the 94th District member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, the 9th Senate District senator and each of the Parish Council’s two at-large members. The council’s 5th District member, now Lee-Sheng, would have three appointments.

“We’re just setting up the board to explore this, to start talking about these issues,” said Lee-Sheng. “There might not be anything.”

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