In The News › Willard-Lewis letter to Nagin expresses concerns about mall project

Willard-Lewis letter to Nagin expresses concerns about mall project

Tuesday, September 22, 2009
By Deon Roberts, Online Editor
New Orleans CityBusiness

Before New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis supports a tax break for Lake Forest Plaza mall, the developers and the city are going to have to answer some questions.

Willard-Lewis, who last week asked the council to defer a vote on the tax break known as tax increment financing, has written a letter dated Monday to Mayor Ray Nagin about the project, saying she has concerns about the viability of the development.

CityBusiness obtained the letter today.

Willard-Lewis, whose district includes the shuttered mall, wrote that she is “strongly committed to the Lake Forest Plaza redevelopment project” and the use of the TIF to pay for it.

But, citing a Bureau of Governmental Research study released last week critical of the TIF, Willard-Lewis said she is concerned about the project’s scale and how TIF proceeds will be used.

BGR is opposed to the developers’ planned use of TIF funding, which will be generated from 2 percent each in city and state sales taxes produced at the mall, to pay off the developers’ private debt, including $11 million they owe to Lowe’s, which is operating on the site.

“The city needs to ensure that the project is developed with the greatest community benefit and at a reasonable cost to the city’s general fund,” Willard-Lewis’ letter says.
But there is a lack of information about the project, the letter says.

Willard-Lewis said she will not support the TIF until she sees professional analysis of the project and a review from the city’s economist on the impact the TIF will have on the city’s general fund budget.

She also wants copies “of all mortgages, related notes and associated guarantees” for city- and privately-owned property at the mall site, the most recent appraisal of the mall property, more information about the Lowe’s debt, a written commitment from the state and a signed letter of intent from a “large format” retailers committing to the project.

Cesar Burgos, who plans to redevelop the property with Ashton Ryan, was optimistic about Willard-Lewis’ letter, saying the developers can fulfill her requests by Oct. 1, the day the council is scheduled to consider the TIF ordinance.

“It sounds like all those things can be addressed before the 1st,” he said.

As for whether the developers can provide her with a letter of intent from a retailer, Burgos said, “I don’t know.”

The developers have been negotiating to get Wal-Mart to build a store at the site, but no deal has been announced yet.

Willard-Lewis, in the letter, said she is concerned that city has not analyzed the project. “Thus far, we have been presented with the developers’ limited information and their commissioned economic impact report,” she wrote.

This month, Burgos and Ryan released a report by Baton Rouge economist Loren Scott, who analyzed the economic impact of the project.

“I can’t think of anyone better than Loren Scott,” Burgos said. “He’s conservative. He’s well-respected across the state.

“Wow. I thought I had gotten the best.”•

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