In The News › New Orleans Council cautious on airport plan

May 14, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

New Orleans Council cautious on airport plan

N.O. council cautious on airport plan
by Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday May 14, 2008, 10:18 PM

New Orleans City Council members gave a favorable but guarded reception Wednesday to a bold proposal to hand over control of Louis Armstrong International Airport to the state in exchange for $500 million to reshape the city’s downtown.

Getting their first detailed look at the nuts and bolts of an initiative that is already moving through the Legislature, council members spent three hours Wednesday telling business leaders who crafted the plan that while the concept is intriguing, they need more information before they embrace it.

Chief among the council’s concerns are whether the $500 million expected to be raised through the sale of bonds is a fair value for the airport and how much influence City Hall would have over how the huge cash infusion is spent.

Council members were told they will have the power to veto transfer of the city property, allowing them to kill the deal if they so choose. But they expressed apprehension that unless the legislative process in Baton Rouge slows down, they will have little say over what they are ultimately asked to vote on.

“This thing is on a fast track,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who heads the Airport Committee that called the hearing at City Hall. “But the fast track may not be in the best interest of the public.”

A call for more public input and further review of the plan also came from several speakers, including former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, businessman and ex-state Rep. Sherman Copelin and Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research.

The usually mild-mannered Barthelemy delivered a passionate speech on the dangers of rushing to judgment, taking dead aim on an aspect of the plan that would cede authority to use the $500 million to a new agency run by a board made up of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees.

“My major concern is who is accountable to spend this money,” said Barthelemy, his voice rising. Pointing to the six council members on the dais, he said, “You are my elected officials, whether I agree with you or not.” In effect, he said, the proposed legislation would create “a government outside of government.”

Under the plan, bond dollars would be invested in five areas: a “sports and entertainment” district on the perimeter of the Superdome and New Orleans Arena, the government complex around City Hall, the medical district where a new Veterans Administration Hospital is planned, the theater district at the intersection of Canal Street and Loyola Avenue, and a six-mile stretch of downtown riverfront.

The state, in turn, would make major improvements at the airport designed to expand passenger and cargo traffic.

Jay Lapeyre, president of the New Orleans Business Council and a leader of the group backing the plan, told the council that his primary objective is to create “a more competitive business environment” in the city by investing in the airport and downtown.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Lapeyre said, about a dozen major New Orleans businesses have pulled up stakes, and in many cases corporate leaders cited a lack of flights in and out of the city as the primary reason for leaving.

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson told Lapeyre that although she fully supports his goals, she and her council colleagues “want to be a part of how the money is spent.”

Councilwoman Shelley Midura said she was concerned that there are no guarantees that the city’s economic development director would have a seat on the so-called Global New Orleans Authority, which would oversee the investment of bond dollars.

“The city should be structurally involved,” she said.

Ron Forman, the Audubon Nature Institute president who is acting as a point man for the airport, said Midura’s recommendation would be welcomed, but he added that the local appointments to the authority will be up to the mayor.

Under terms of the proposed legislation, the New Orleans Aviation Board, which is controlled by mayoral appointees, would be replaced by the Southeast Regional Airport Authority, made up of appointees of the governor, mayor, Jefferson Parish president and St. Charles Parish president.

The proposed change in governance also prompted questions Thursday about whether the move would require a voter-approved change in the City Charter, which spells out the Aviation Board’s management role, and whether federal rules would allow the state to allocate bond money to the city as part of the transaction.

Under federal rules, proceeds from an airport sale must be plowed back into the airport or into an airport-related project. For that reason, backers of the new plan say it does not call for a sale, but rather an ownership transfer accompanied by a compensation package.

Forman agreed to a request by Council President Arnie Fielkow, a key supporter of the proposal, to provide the council with legal opinions regarding the ownership transfer and the charter-change issue.

Frank Donze can be reached at fdonze@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3328.

May 14, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

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