WELCOME TO JAZZLAND - NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
In August of 2009, Ray Nagin, then mayor of New Orleans, announced that kids’ entertainment channel Nickelodeon signed a deal to redevelop Six Flags of New Orleans into the TV channel’s first stand-alone theme park.
"This is huge," he said. "I don’t know what we could have done better… I don’t know if we could have found a better partner. Anyone who owns land in New Orleans east is probably sitting pretty good right now."
In the mid-’90s, the city of New Orleans took out loans totaling $25.3 million dollar from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct the park. Jazzland, its original moniker, opened with much fanfare in 2000. It only operated for two seasons before filing for bankruptcy. A few years later, desperate to find a company to take over operations, the city added on some $15 million in additional loans to help finance Six Flags’ takeover. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina left the park stewing in 12 feet of floodwaters for two weeks. Abandoned and decaying, the park sits in the marshes of New Orleans East, the tops of its roller coasters visible for miles.
The Nickelodeon deal required an initial investment of $165 million dollars. Financing hinged on capturing Gulf Opportunity Zone Bonds (GO Zone Bonds), a federal program that offered low interest rates to businesses investing in storm damaged areas of New Orleans. Despite the endorsement of the city’s Industrial Development Board, the bonds never came through, and the developers did not secure other financing options. Nickelodeon dropped the project within a few months.
Other discarded plans include everything from a baseball complex to a water park. The most recent redevelopment scheme was an upscale outlet mall, complete with a boardwalk where patrons could ride on the remaining roller coasters. Approved by the city in March of 2012, the $40 million dollar mall would be largely paid for with tax increment financing (TIF). TIF is a form of public-private financing where the up-front development costs are subsidized by public entities, creating long term municipal debt. This debt is then paid for by the anticipated tax revenues generated by the redevelopment once it reenters commercial activity. The majority of the sales taxes and increased property taxes would go towards debt repayment rather than city or state coffers.
At a public meeting debuting plans for the mall, some residents pushed back on using TIF dollars. According to the Times Picayune, David Garcia, a lead developer of the project, responded that anyone claiming to be able to redevelop Jazzland without TIF was “lacking in either expertise or honesty.” The site is too damaged and risky for developers to be willing to wholly finance any project themselves, he added. Ultimately, the debate was moot. The plans were dead a year later. The city would instead support building an outlet mall on the Mississippi River, less than half a mile from the French Quarter and 17 miles from Jazzland.
Before the storm, Jazzland was an economic loss for the city. Now it’s an economic drain, siphoning funds without even providing jobs. Currently, New Orleans pays $1 million dollars annually on the original construction loan. Meanwhile, city funding for children’s athletics, the library, and substance abuse counselors gets slashed due to a protracted budget crisis.
The arguments for redevelopment mirror the arguments for building such a monument in the first place—we need jobs, we need development in the East. But if it’s true what David Garcia said—that rebuilding Jazzland necessarily means leveraging TIF dollars, mushrooming municipal debt and earmarking taxes away from public ledgers—then it seems like a poor bet for anyone to make, especially for the city. Redevelopment could mean New Orleans over-extends itself financially again. Another natural disaster or bankruptcy would leave the city with a bigger annual debt payment, and kick off another round of redevelopment roulette, with firms trotting out new proposals. No matter what glittering designs the plans depict, though, the promises will be the same: jobs, tourist dollars, and higher property taxes for everyone in the East. The question is whether or not low wage jobs, which dominate the labor economy of shopping malls and theme parks, are worth the price of admission.
* * *
Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. Currently, she is working with partner Darin Acosta on The Airline is a Very Long Road—an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.
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