By Marie Chinappi, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
The Municipal Auditorium was once the site of bustling community activity – home to graduation ceremonies and pageants, a venue for Mardi Gras balls and festivities, host to sporting events and concerts, including the Beatles and Elvis Presley. The beautiful and historic Italian Renaissance Revival-style building still stands in the heart of Armstrong Park, only now it is silent, empty, and in disrepair.
The City of New Orleans needs to address the redevelopment of the Municipal Auditorium now, while we have the chance. Congress is currently reducing FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which is the source of the overwhelming majority of post-Katrina recovery money. If the City doesn’t act fast, this potential community and economic-development project may not get the funds it needs – and deserves.
According to the Stafford Act, which governs FEMA outlays, public facilities damaged by a natural disaster may be repaired or, if damages exceed 50 percent, replaced. But given that historic structures may be, in effect, irreplaceable, as an alternative to demolition and new construction, the act allows a substantial margin above industry standards for building a new structure of comparable size. Moreover, due to its historic significance and proximity to economically underserved neighborhoods, the Municipal Auditorium — officially the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium — is potentially eligible for an additional $15 million in federal and state tax credits.
These mechanisms are already at play in the restoration of the nearby Saenger Theater. Under the Saenger deal, the property owner donated the building to the Canal Street Development Corp. so that equity from investors seeking tax credits could be used to rehabilitate the entertainment palace after it was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Katrina.
There is, of course, a major advantage to a deal driven by federal money and a single financing source rather than a mixed-finance project involving public and conventional loans, private equity investors and tax credits. With a project of the Municipal Auditorium’s size and underwriting complexity, a private deal without a large federal grant may be extremely difficult to put together. Additionally, the tax credits currently applicable to this project will sunset and may not be reinstated at prior funding levels, if they are renewed at all. Restoring the Municipal Auditorium is an estimated $75 million dollar project that needn’t cost the city of New Orleans a dime. But time is of the essence.
Upgraded and remodeled, an 8,000-plush seat facility with a state-of-the-art stage, top-of-the line lighting, and a superior sound system could attract major award shows to New Orleans, with huge economic impact.
To win the 2013 Superbowl, the city put together a presentation that displayed our strengths in hosting large events. A comparable effort should target the American Music Awards, MTV Awards, BET Awards, Golden Globe Awards, NAACP Image Awards, Tony Awards, and the People’s Choice Awards – events too big for Armstrong Park’s adjoining entertainment asset, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre.
The park itself, directly across Rampart Street from the French Quarter, already is adorned with fountains, lagoons and jazz sculptures that are contextually appropriate to awards shows.
But the facility’s uses would not be limited to award shows and entertainment events. With over 75,000 square feet of office/flex space, the Auditorium has ample room for children’s educational activities, including musical instruction and arts education. An assessment conducted by the community organization Friends of the Municipal Auditorium also showed support for using the building to train residents for permanent work in the world-class entertainment district it would anchor.
Right now the Municipal Auditorium stands damaged and empty. As an asset of potentially tremendous value to our city and its people, it’s high time we address its future as a restored, integral part of our community.
Marie Chinappi, works in commercial real estate and community engagement. She is a member of the Friends of the Municipal Auditorium (FoMA) and can be reached at email@example.com.