The French Market Corporation is moving forward with a plan to lease a popular Bourbon Street park directly to a restaurant, which would shut out the politically connected organization that for years has profited by being a middleman.
However, the city agency is negotiating a separate deal that would send money to the nonprofit to maintain the statues it has installed at Edison Park.
Tuesday evening, the French Market Corporation’s real estate committee voted unanimously to lease the park, on the 300 block of Bourbon Street, directly to Café Beignet. The lease has to be approved by the French Market Corporation’s full board at its July 30 meeting.
Since 2004, the restaurant has subleased the heavily touristed spot from a nonprofit group, New Orleans Musical Legends Inc. The nonprofit leased it from the city for the bargain price of $1 a year, enabling it to make more than $100,000 a year on its lease to the restaurant.
The nonprofit is run by Dottie Belletto, an ally of Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Belletto’s company, New Orleans Convention Company Inc., frequently handles events for the city and Landrieu’s campaigns, to which she has contributed about $6,500 over the years. Belletto did not respond to The Lens’ request for comment on this story.
Landrieu also appointed her to the board that oversees the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Belletto’s sister, influential political consultant Norma Jane Sabiston, has worked for Landrieu and his sister, Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Belletto’s event-planning company also is the nonprofit’s largest contractor at the park. It gets about $36,000 per year to manage events.
Under the new deal, Café Beignet would pay the French Market Corporation an annual rent of $140,000 or 7 percent of its annual sales, whichever is greater. The lease would begin next month.
The board first moved to lease the park directly to the restaurant in February, several months after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux criticized the deal with New Orleans Musical Legends.
Quatrevaux said it was “difficult at best to understand the reason that the FMC needs a third party intermediary to continue to manage the lease with Café Beignet.”
The French Market Corporation is required to send at least $100,000, or up to 20 percent of its net rental revenues, to the city’s general fund every year. According to Quatrevaux’s report, the agency routinely contributed $1 million a year before Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm it has hit that mark just once, in 2012.
Following the report, the city’s 2014 revenue estimate included $1 million from the French Market Corporation, a signal that it would be expected to contribute more to the city’s bottom line.
Even after the February vote, the board and its executive director Jon Smith wanted New Orleans Musical Legends to continue to maintain a collection of statues that it had commissioned for the park.
The French Market Corporation was willing to pay about $105,000 a year for the service.
In March, the board voted to delay its earlier decision to lease the property directly to Café Beignet, and it extended the lease with New Orleans Musical Legends for six months. In the meantime, Belletto’s company won a $250,000 event-management contract with the city.
Smith has yet to reach a deal with the nonprofit to maintain the statues, but negotiations are ongoing, he said Tuesday.
“We hope to be able to provide cultural value at the park,” he said in an interview. “They are the only people we are in negotiations with right now.”