The Mercedes-Benz Superdome (photo by Scott Thompson)

The New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund last week awarded its first official grant since it was founded in 2020 — $1.2 million to the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, spread out over the next five years. The money will help the Super Bowl Host Committee fulfill $25 million in financial obligations to the NFL in return for hosting the 2025 Super Bowl in New Orleans. 

The decision was made at an NOTCF board meeting on May 22. The board is made up of four mayoral appointees and two council members — Jay Banks and Kristin Palmer. Neither of the council members was at the meeting, and neither could be reached for comment for this story. The agenda for that meeting simply noted there would be an “action item” related to “Grant Review Committee Recommendations.” 

The grant was awarded a week after the NOTCF announced a $600,000 “culture bearer” grant fund. The Super Bowl grant is separate from that new culture bearer grant program, however, according to NOTCF President and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy Lisa Alexis.

The NOTCF was created in 2020 after the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, a city-controlled agency, merged the majority of its funding and responsibilities with another publicly-funded, but privately run, marketing agency for the city’s tourism industry — New Orleans and Company. The remnants of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation were transformed into the NOTCF. The NOTCF inherited revenues through a dedicated hotel tax. 

NOTCF also inherited a few financial obligations. One of those was an agreement to provide $1.3 million to the Super Bowl Host Committee, Alexis told the board last week. She said that $125,000 of that was already paid in 2019 by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. The rest of the money will be paid by NOTCF with one $175,000 payment this year, and $250,000 annual payments for the four years after that.

But it’s unclear how the $1.3 million commitment was ever formalized, or why the board would need to approve a new grant if an agreement was already in place. In a follow-up interview, Alexis said that she didn’t know for sure whether NOTCF was legally obligated to pay those funds prior to the grant being awarded last week.

“I’m not sure of the correct answer,” she said. “I would really need to confirm that with our general counsel.”

Jay Cicero, President of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation and Executive Director of the Super Bowl Host Committee, said during the meeting that the money would go toward fulfilling the $25 million in expenses the Host Committee agreed to cover as part of a deal to entice the NFL to host the Super Bowl in New Orleans. 

“The NFL does ask for a lot, as do most of the other groups we deal with, however the Super Bowl has the biggest return on investment than any other event out there,” Cicero said.

Cicero couldn’t be reached for an interview, and it wasn’t immediately clear what exactly that $25 million would be used for. But a host committee agreement from the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans provides an idea of the types of expenses involved, like security, parties, game tickets and transportation. 

Cicero said at the meeting that the remainder of the $25 million would be raised through the State of Louisiana’s Major Event Incentive Program, private donors and contributions from New Orleans and Company.

This type of public financial support for large events that can attract out-of-town visitors is a common occurrence in New Orleans, where tourism is a major economic driver. But when the NOTCF was created, it was proposed as a different kind of cultural support that would provide more money directly to individual “culture bearers” rather than just large tourism institutions. 

The NOTCF came under scrutiny last year when it approved a $500,000 payment to allow New Orleans to participate in Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. (Alexis told The Lens that the payment was not technically a grant.) Some observers, including Councilwoman Palmer and The Advocate’s editorial board, criticized that decision, given the hardships that the coronavirus pandemic brought down on the city, especially those working in the tourism and hospitality industry.

At last week’s meeting, the chairman of the NOTCF board, photographer Lloyd Dennis questioned whether the Super Bowl Host Committee grant fell in line with their mission.

“The committee feels good about this?” he asked. “My only concern is that we’re trying to find a way to get the real culture bearers, the authentic culture of New Orleans, involved.”

Board member Susan Brennan, who runs Second Line Stages Film Studio, said that the grant made sense since the NOTCF’s main funding source is a hotel tax. 

“I think what we discussed is that the money is really coming from the hotels, and this is an event that’s sold out in New Orleans, sold out beyond New Orleans, for the hotels, and the committee felt it scored very well.”

When speaking directly to Cicero, Brennan raised similar concerns as Dennis.

“Our only concern is that some of the culture bearers, because this is a cultural fund, be highlighted and whether that’s our music, our chefs, our Mardi Gras Indians, in participation in some of the cultural things you all do.”

“I can tell you that’s our goal,” Cicero said.

Cicero said that down the road, as Super Bowl 2025 got closer and the Host Committee started ramping up work, there would be opportunities to involve culture bearers and highlight authentic New Orleans culture. He specifically pointed to opportunities around a music festival the NFL will host.

Alexis said that those details would be figured out later.

“We have spoken to the Sports Foundation, and as it relates to direction of funds to the cultural industry, the cultural artists, we have learned and understood there is an opportunity leading up to the superbowl where a memorandum of understanding is entered into, and that is the place in which NOTCF would have those considerations placed,” she said. 

The grant was approved unanimously. At the same meeting, the NOTCF board also approved its second grant — $35,000 to the National Fried Chicken Festival in New Orleans. 

“It isn’t pulled from the air.”

The NOTCF was created last year as a result of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s “fair share deal” that she brokered with the hospitality industry and the state in 2019. Cantrell wanted the city to retain a greater share of the city’s tourism-related tax revenue for infrastructure projects, specifically at the Sewerage and Water Board. As it stands, the majority of those tax proceeds are funneled back into the tourism industry.

Cantrell was able to secure millions in additional funding through the deal. Part of the compromise was allowing the merger of two publicly funded marketing agencies for the city’s tourism industry — the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and New Orleans and Company. The merger was seen as a win for the hospitality industry since the two organizations were consolidated under New Orleans and Company — a private nonprofit — instead of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation — a public body with a publicly appointed board. 

As a result of the merger, the majority of NOTMC’s budget and duties were transferred to New Orleans and Company. One funding stream was not transferred to New Orleans and Company, however — a hotel occupancy tax that brought in $5.7 million in revenue in 2019. The tax brought in a little less than $2 million in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic crisis. 

Those leftover “fair share” dollars weren’t dedicated to infrastructure. Instead, the NOTMC was rebranded and restructured as the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund, or NOTCF, which now operates with those leftover funds. It adopted a new mission statement: “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.”

The new NOTCF not only inherited those extra funds, it also inherited some financial obligations that NOTMC had previously agreed to, including payments to the Essence festival, Jazzfest and the Super Bowl. 

But unlike the Super Bowl payment, the other payments didn’t go through a grant process. The Lens asked Alexis why only the Super Bowl committee contribution had to be approved by the board, unlike the Essence Festival payment. 

“Essence has an actual contract in place,” she said. “And the Super Bowl did not have that same contract form. So we wanted to just bring it through the consistent process.”

The Lens asked Alexis where the $1.3 million figure came from, given that she wasn’t aware of a formal agreement. 

“For that I’ll probably have to defer to general counsel on a response to that as well,” Alexis said. “It isn’t pulled from the air.”

A draft budget that was presented to the council as it was considering approving the NOTCF included a Super Bowl Host Committee payment. But the payment was listed at $125,000 in 2020, and was only supposed to last until 2023. Alexis said that the payments were always going to escalate and total $1.3 million, but again could not point to where that agreement was formalized. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...