The city is looking to drastically revamp the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, changing it from a marketing agency that attracts tourists to a fund that supports local culture bearers and cultural institutions. Those details were revealed at a meeting of the NOTMC board on Friday and in documents drafted by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration.
The changes to NOTMC are the result of the “fair share” infrastructure deal that Cantrell negotiated with state government officials and the tourism industry last year. The goal was to divert public funding from well endowed tourism entities to city infrastructure projects, especially at the Sewerage and Water Board.
Part of the deal was an agreement to merge the city’s tourism marketing agencies: the city-controlled NOTMC and New Orleans and Co,, formerly known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau, a private nonprofit. The vast majority of NOTMC’s funding and responsibilities were transferred to New Orleans and Co. at the end of last year.
In 2019, NOTMC took in $16.4 million in revenue. This year, most of that will go to New Orleans and Co., leaving NOTMC with just $5.7 million, according to a 2020 budget presented to the City Council last year. That money comes from a hotel occupancy tax dedicated to funding NOTMC.
Of the remaining $5.7 million in the NOTMC budget, $1.8 will be used to satisfy some lingering responsibilities, including cash payments to Essence Festival and the Super Bowl Hosting Committee. That leaves $3.9 million. During his November budget presentation, NOTMC CEO Mark Romig told the council that money would be used “for infrastructure or other purposes of the city.”
Under the plan presented Friday by Cantrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Josh Cox, that money is going to be spent on grants for local cultural institutions.
“As tourism has continued to grow, many have not felt the benefits of that growth,” said a policy paper written by the Cantrell administration. “Simultaneously, there is no large, predictable dedicated revenue stream to support cultural organizations like museums, opera or ballet. Presently, those entities depend on Wisner grant dollars, which cannot fully meet the need or allow those entities to make larger investments.”
Under the proposal, the NOTMC occupancy tax would bolster funding for those organizations, and the NOTMC would be renamed the “New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund.” Its board would be reduced from 15 members to seven, two of which would be council members and five of which would be culture bearers or “individuals with expertise in the cultural economy” appointed by the mayor.
Rather than tourism marketing, the agency would instead focus on “support for the cultural economy and culture-bearers of the City of New Orleans.” The board would also be required to submit an annual plan for how to support the city’s cultural economy.
The details on the grants — such as specific goals and who would be eligible — are not yet clear. As board member Sheila Burns pointed out, the term “cultural economy” is still undefined in the changes.
“Cultural economy is such a global term,” she said. “It may be prudent to put some kind of definition to that.”
Cox said that the details were still broad in order to leave all options on the table for how the money will be used.
According to meeting notes from the NOTMC board’s last meeting, the details of the plan are being ironed out by Cantrell and her team in conjunction with former State Rep. Walt Leger III. Leger sponsored a number of pieces of legislation benefiting the hospitality industry during his tenure, including essential portions of the fair share deal. Late last year, he was hired by New Orleans and Co. as its vice president for strategic affairs.
During city budget hearings in the fall, several council members expressed concerns about the lack of accountability for the millions of dollars being transferred from NOTMC, a public body, to New Orleans and Co., a private nonprofit. But considering the mayor’s plan for the remaining NOTMC funds, council members were enthusiastic at Friday’s meeting.
“I do think that what the mayor is trying to put forward is something that this city can reap benefits on for years to come,” said Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who sits on the NOTMC board.
The NOTMC board was supposed to vote on the changes at the Friday meeting, but Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who is also on the board, asked to defer the issue for a couple weeks so that other council members had more time to look at the details.
“I certainly agree with the mission,” Moreno said at Friday’s meeting. “I think we need a smidgen more time to possibly make a few tweaks. I would rather make sure we have everything right now.”
The changes to the board will have to be ratified by the City Council. Moreno argued that it would be better to have everything run by council members now so there are no questions when it comes time for the council to vote on it.
NOTMC’s board didn’t end up voting on the changes on Friday, and it wasn’t immediately clear exactly when that vote will take place.