A year after Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that Bayou Phoenix had won the right to redevelop the former Six Flags amusement park site in East New Orleans, lease negotiations to give the group control of the site seem to be on fragile ground.
Troy Henry, the local businessman who is the public face of Bayou Phoenix, said in an interview Tuesday that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, which is expected to take formal possession of the 227-acre site abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, is asking too much control over the project.
“They’re asking for approval authority — and approval authority and control are one — for all of our subtenants, all of our leases, all of our business arrangements,” Henry said. “It’s not something we can accept, or will ever accept.”
NORA executive director Brenda Breaux did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The Cantrell administration also did not immediately respond to inquiries.
One year later
Tuesday was the first anniversary of Cantrell’s announcement that Bayou Phoenix’s proposal for a warehouse, water park, sports fields, retail and other amenities would be given the green light after a group pulled out of concurrent development. The other group, a partnership led by NFL players – including New Orleans Saints stars Drew Brees and Demario Davis – as well as Colorado-based developer Kiernan-West, would receive special help securing a site alternative.
Nothing else has been said publicly about the other project. The foundation including Brees and Davis, called SHIELD 1, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Cantrell administration initially showed preference for the Brees group, but Bayou Phoenix rallied community support behind Henry, a well-known public figure who lives in East New Orleans. The final selection concluded a lengthy selection process and sparked excitement for City Hall’s latest attempt to rejuvenate the site, which has been an albatross since Six Flags abandoned it after Hurricane Katrina.
Previous attempts to build a mall or sell the site as is have come to nothing.
Henry has repeatedly said Bayou Phoenix has garnered serious interest from operators and tenants, but he hinted in July that interest would evaporate if negotiations drag on too long. His comments on Tuesday were the first indication of any serious difficulty in concluding a rental agreement.
Henry said he continues to move forward with pre-development work assuming the project will go ahead, but he didn’t say if he thinks NORA will eventually soften its stance.
“We’re hoping they come back with something a little more flexible,” Henry said. “But look, there are fundamental things that we won’t hesitate on. And if we can’t control our own project, it’s not our project.”
The bureaucratic disputes
Henry’s comments follow months of bureaucratic wrangling over which public agency will own the site as the private development group scrambles to get it back on the market. NORA, a state agency, agreed after Cantrell’s announcement last year to take the title from the Industrial Development Council, a much smaller organization that has owned the site since 2009.
The IDB, an autonomous municipal agency, has long wanted to divest itself of the property, and relations with the mayor’s office have been strained over the years after several earlier initiatives failed. Officials hoped to settle the ownership issue by the end of last year, but negotiations took much longer than expected.
At the same time, NORA sought a separate agreement with the Cantrell administration for some assurances in case the Bayou Phoenix project did not move forward. City economic development director Jeff Schwartz said NORA’s deal with the city includes a five-year development period with Bayou Phoenix, and NORA will have the right to decide what to do with the site if the developer doesn’t. does not meet certain criteria.
The two agreements between public agencies should be signed imminently, according to Schwartz. The terms of the agreements will become public once they have been approved.
Officials had originally hoped to sign the third deal, with Bayou Phoenix, at the same time, but this one is “a bit behind schedule,” Schwartz said.
“We all have timelines and expectations of how long things are going to take, and sometimes negotiations take longer,” Schwartz said.
NORA mostly kept a low profile as talks took place behind closed doors, with Schwartz’s monthly updates to the IDB being the only way for the public to learn more about the project. A group of East New Orleans residents attending the meetings expressed frustration with the slow progress and information, and they did so again on Tuesday.
“Our community feels this needs to happen before the end of the year,” said Tangi Wall, a member of the residents’ group called New Orleans East Matters. “The community can’t accept any disappointment on this one, I can tell you that.”