The board of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, or NOTMC, voted to drastically change the organization’s mission at a Monday meeting.
The changes still need to be ratified by the City Council before they’re final, but if and when that happens, the organization will change from a marketing agency for the city’s tourism industry to a fund that supports New Orleans’ “cultural economy and culture-bearers.” The organization’s name would become the “New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund.”
The NOTMC board includes three council members — Helena Moreno, Jay Banks and Kristin Palmer. All voted in favor of the changes on Monday, making it likely that the proposal will pass through the full council as well.
“For a long time there have been culture-bearers who want to and feel that they need to get more of their fair shake.” said Josh Cox, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives. “And we hope that with this vote and the creation of this fund, we’ll be able to create some of that long term revenue.”
The new fund will have roughly $3.9 million to dole out this year. But exactly what this fund will look like and where the money will go is still largely unclear.
First, the board changed the first item on its list of “purposes and powers” in its articles of incorporation. The board removed language about advertising and marketing to tourists around the world and replaced it with a new mission: “To support the cultural economy and culture-bearers of the City of New Orleans through programs and projects, and to advance, promote and maintain tourism that is equitable and sustainable.”
Second, the votes changed the makeup of the board. Under the changes, the board would shrink from 15 members to just seven. Four of them would be “culture bearers” or “individuals with expertise in the cultural economy” appointed by the mayor. The other three seats would be taken by council members: the District B council member, the District C council member and a third member of the council’s choosing. District B covers the Central Business District and much of Mid-City and Uptown while District C covers the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, Algiers and parts of Treme.
But aside from those two concrete alterations, no more details were added explaining who is eligible for grants, what the application and decision making process will be or what rubric the new board will use to determine how the money is dispersed.
At a previous meeting, board member Sheila Burns pointed out that the term “cultural economy” is still undefined.
“Cultural economy is such a global term,” she said. “It may be prudent to put some kind of definition to that.”
The board didn’t end up adding any more details, but Cox pointed out that there are still checks to ensure the money is being spent properly and opportunities for the public to provide their input. The meetings of the new board, which will decide many of these details, would still be open to the public. And the new fund would still have to submit an annual spending plan to the City Council for approval, just as NOTMC currently does.
The changes to NOTMC are the result of Cantrell’s ‘fair share deal’ that she brokered with state officials and the hospitality industry last year in hopes of dedicating more hotel taxes to local infrastructure projects, particularly at the Sewerage and Water Board. The deal included a host of trade-offs between the city and hospitality industry.
One facet of the plan was that the majority of NOTMC’s budget and duties would be absorbed by New Orleans and Co., a private-nonprofit formerly known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The vast majority of NOTMC’s funding and responsibilities were transferred to New Orleans and Co. at the end of last year.
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.
In 2019, NOTMC took in $16.5 million in revenue. Most of that will go to New Orleans and Co. this year, leaving NOTMC with just $5.7 million. The 2020 NOTMC budget reserves $1.8 million for some remaining responsibilities, including cash payments to Essence Festival and the Super Bowl Hosting Committee.
That leaves $3.9 million left over, stemming from an occupancy tax dedicated to funding NOTMC. In 2019, former NOTMC CEO Mark Romig told the council the money could be used “for infrastructure or other purposes of the city.”
The fair share deal is supposed to bring New Orleans $27 million in revenue every year. Part of that calculation was the $3.9 million brought in by the hotel occupancy tax. The city will now have to find that money somewhere else.
Cox said the money was going to the new fund instead of infrastructure for two reasons. First, he said it was “the right thing to do” for the city’s culture bearers. Second, he said that the tax was originally passed in the name of economic development, making it legally difficult to divert those funds to infrastructure.
“The administration is working to ensure that every dollar that was promised to be spent on infrastructure, will be spent on infrastructure,” Cox said during the meeting. “This culture fund is not being spent at the expense of infrastructure.”
It remains unclear how the city will fill the $3.9 million hole.
“We’re working on it, but we’re confident,” Cox told The Lens after the meeting.