The French Market Corporation’s Board of Directors voted on Thursday to lease a popular French Quarter tourist spot directly to a restaurant that has been operating there for more than a decade, ending a longtime lease with a politically connected nonprofit group.
For years, New Orleans Musical Legends Inc. has leased Edison Park, in the 300 block of Bourbon Street, from the city’s French Market Corporation for $1 a year. In turn, the nonprofit has subleased the property to Café Beignet. In recent years, that has brought in more than $100,000 a year for New Orleans Musical Legends.
Under the terms of the lease, Café Beignet will pay the French Market Corporation an annual rent of $140,000 or 7 percent of its sales, whichever is greater.
But the nonprofit, which is headed by Dottie Belletto, an ally of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, hasn’t been cut out of the park entirely.
Under a cooperative endeavor agreement also approved Thursday, New Orleans Musical Legends will maintain a collection of statues in Edison Park. The nonprofit owns the statues, which portray famous New Orleans musicians.
In exchange, the French Market Corporation will allow New Orleans Musical Legends to use the park for fundraising activities, rent-free. No money will change hands in the deal, Jon Smith, the French Market Corporation’s Executive Director, said at the meeting.
Belletto proposed the terms of the deal, which the Landrieu administration brokered, Smith said.
At one point, the French Market Corporation was willing to pay New Orleans Musical Legends about $105,000 a year to maintain the statues.
Both agreements go into effect Friday, according to Smith.
As New Orleans Musical Legends’ lease was coming to an end, a separate company run by Belletto got an event-planning contract with the city. The city will pay New Orleans Convention Company Inc. $250,000 to plan several events. It was the only company to respond to a request for proposals.
New Orleans Convention Company frequently handles events for the city and Landrieu’s campaigns, to which she has contributed about $6,500 over the years. 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, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
The vote on the agreement between New Orleans Musical Legends and French Market Corporation almost didn’t happen because of a letter sent to board members by Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice.
Entergy’s predecessor, New Orleans Public Service Inc., donated the park to the city in 1973. Rice was worried that the agreement could invalidate that donation. Smith did not explain in the meeting why Rice — who was not there — thought the donation could be jeopardized.
According to Smith, City Attorney Sharonda Williams reviewed the agreement with New Orleans Musical Legends and assured Rice that it would not invalidate the donation.
There was another complication. Stephen Lane, New Orleans Musical Legends’ lawyer, told The Lens in a phone interview that the group’s board of directors did not sign off on the most recent draft of the agreement with the French Market Corporation. After the group rejected the draft, he said, he asked the city to continue negotiations.
“I haven’t seen whatever document it is that they voted on today,” Lane said.
Friday afternoon, Smith told The Lens in an email that New Orleans Musical Legends’ board had rejected the agreement. That doesn’t affect the lease with Cafe Beignet, he wrote. The French Market Corporation “will work with Cafe Beignet to maintain the park for public use,” he wrote.
He didn’t immediately respond to a question about what will happen to the statues.
The French Market Corporation voted to end its lease with New Orleans Musical Legends in February, though it later extended the arrangement for up to six months.
That followed a 2013 report by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General that criticized the deal. The Inspector General said the agency would be better off eliminating the middleman and leasing the park directly to the restaurant.
This story was updated after publication to include Smith’s statement that New Orleans Musical Legends had rejected the agreement to let it use the park in exchange for maintaining the statues. (Aug. 1, 2014)