In The News › New Orleans voters will weigh in on tax for business park

New Orleans voters will weigh in on tax for business park

October 20, 2011
By Bruce Eggler
The Times-Picayune

To its defenders, the 7,000-acre New Orleans Regional Business Park can be one of the city’s most important tools for promoting economic development. To its critics, the eastern New Orleans park has failed for 30 years to prove that its potential can be turned into reality. Instead, it has been the subject of frequent unfavorable publicity because of management turmoil, political squabbles and ethical problems.
New Orleans voters will decide Saturday whether to let the business park continue to levy a 20-mill tax on commercial and industrial property within its boundaries for another 20 years. Residential property is exempt.
Although the tax is levied only within the district, it is subject to a citywide vote.
Even if the renewal fails, the business park will remain in existence, though reduced in scale. The tax millage has provided about one third of its annual $600,000 budget.
If it fails, park supporters are likely to ask the Legislature to authorize another vote, but perhaps limited to the owners of property in the district.
City Councilman Jon Johnson, whose district includes the business park, is one of its strongest advocates. At a recent council committee meeting, he called the park a “treasure” that provides “great services” to the 85 businesses within its borders and has “unlimited potential” for spurring further economic growth in New Orleans. If the city’s economy is to grow significantly, he said, the business park is where the growth will take place.
On the other hand, neither Mayor Mitch Landrieu nor many local business groups have spoken up in support of the park or urged voters to renew its taxing authority.
Johnson, though, said he is heartened by the fact there appears to be no organized opposition to the renewal. In the absence of an opposition campaign, he said, tax renewals normally pass, especially if the vast majority of those voting don’t have to pay the tax.
Created to spur growth
The Legislature created the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District — known since 2004 as the New Orleans Regional Business Park — in 1979 to stimulate industrial and commercial development in the vast area bounded by the CSX Railroad tracks, the Industrial Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Maxent Canal.
The park has collected a tax of about 20 mills a year since 1982, generating about $220,000 a year.
There are nearly 2,000 property taxpayers in the district, but according to the Bureau of Governmental Research, the vast majority own small plots of vacant land. Most of the district’s tax money comes from its 85 businesses. In 2011, the two largest taxpayers, Folgers Coffee Co. and Entergy, paid 28 percent of the taxes, and the top 15 paid 60 percent of the taxes.
Even critics concede that the business park represents a significant economic-development opportunity for the city. It contains large tracts of undeveloped land, and it has easy access to six railroad lines, the Industrial Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway, U.S. 90 and Interstate 10.
However, soft soil conditions can make development expensive, and much of the land is divided into hundreds of small lots located on “paper streets” planned decades ago but never built. Gaining title to these sites would be costly and time-consuming.
Rough around the edges
In addition, for many years the area has been plagued by illegal dumping, making it visually uninviting to business owners seeking a site to build or operate. The area also suffers from poor infrastructure and a lack of basic city services. Property owners complain of clogged drains, malfunctioning street and traffic lights, poorly maintained roads, overgrown and debris-filled lots, an abundance of junked cars, a lack of public transportation and little police presence.
Michelle Bradley, general manager of one business park tenant, ConGlobal Industries, said she does not feel safe there after dark and that police often do not show up when called about burglaries or other crimes.
BGR said that despite the park’s seemingly strategic location, it has always struggled to attract new businesses. Although it can claim a major role in persuading Folgers to consolidate its roasting operations in New Orleans, the research group said, such success stories have been few. Park officials instead have floated ideas such as a motor speedway, a youth sports complex and a modern office park, but none was realized.
The park’s most recent audit, from 2009, found that management had misspent or failed to document how it spent more than $150,000 in grant money and that it paid $2,000 to a consulting company owned by the executive director, with no documentation on what services the company provided.
BGR suggested that rather than trying to recruit and assist individual businesses, a task best left to the NOLA Business Alliance, the city’s new public-private partnership for economic development, the business park should use its money to address the fundamental infrastructure and service needs of the district.
The bureau said such an approach would help meet the real needs of tenants, some of whom said they could not name any benefits they have derived from the business park. Some said the park’s operations have been so limited that they would not notice if it disappeared — except that their tax bills would go down.

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