New Orleans City Hall (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council made a last minute decision to defer a measure to give up to $70 million in local sales tax proceeds to an unelected state board called BioDistrict NOLA — which encompasses hundreds of acres in Mid-City and Gert Town — with the goal of fostering the growth of the city’s biomedical industry. 

On Wednesday, the council released an agenda showing the contract would come up for a final vote at the council’s Thursday meeting. A council spokesperson confirmed that to The Lens on Wednesday as well. But early Thursday morning, the spokesperson told The Lens that the item would be deferred due to ongoing opposition from residents.

“This is the closest we have been to finalizing the document, but I’m withdrawing it again because additional accountability measures are necessary and must be included,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said in a statement. “I know that the BioDistrict is eager to get this process complete, but as I have said all along, it is the Council’s responsibility to get it right.”

Moreno said that the financial model being proposed by the BioDistrict is unique, and that the council needs to be careful about how it’s executed.

“We are essentially creating the model and we must ensure that it is transparent, responsible, accountable and most importantly a benefit to the people of the City of New Orleans,” Moreno said. 

Moreno’s office couldn’t provide a timeline for when the measure might come back for a vote. Andy Kopplin, chair of the BioDistrict board and president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, told The Lens that they were working to amend the contract in time for the council to consider it at its next full meeting on Oct. 20.

“As we have continually demonstrated, we remain willing to make the necessary modifications to the CEA,” Kopplin said in a statement. “Councilmember Moreno asked us to make additional changes in order to put this in the best posture to be positioned for success for both the BioDistrict and the City. We look forward to continuing to work with the council, and a successful passage of the ordinance at the next City Council meeting.”

This is the second time in the last year that the council has deferred action on the BioDistrict deal. In late 2021, an initial proposed contract from the BioDistrict was pulled due to community opposition. The BioDistrict made significant changes to the contract and reintroduced it in August. 

But as The Lens reported on Wednesday, a growing number of community groups and residents say that despite some improvements, the new contract still has major problems.

The contract would allow the BioDistrict to take in a certain portion of the sales tax growth that occurs within the district, money that would otherwise likely go to the city’s general fund and be used for general city services. The BioDistrict footprint covers hundreds of acres of land in Mid-City, Gert Town and the Central Business District that includes the VA Hospital, University Medical Center and the old Charity hospital building. 

It’s not entirely clear what the money would be used for. The BioDistrict would need to get council approval for a Master Plan, but would only have to submit that plan after the contract was already signed.

An ad hoc coalition of critics recently released documents outlining their financial and legal concerns with the contract. The list of grievances is long, but includes objections to the city giving away millions of dollars without a clear idea of how the money will be spent, and concerns about whether the council will really have control over the annual budget. 

“The contract states in the most general language that the BioDistrict will in the future, at some unspecified time and manner, create unspecified projects that will create a bioscience hub within its boundaries. This unspecified value cannot be analyzed or evaluated,” one of the opposition documents says.

And there are some residents who object to the very idea of giving local tax dollars to an unelected state board.

“There are a number of people who think that it’s a bad idea to give local dollars to an unelected state board, especially given the history of the relationship between this city and the state,” Mary Howell, a resident and attorney who has been opposing the deal for over a year, told The Lens. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. But it appears that, unlike the council, it may not see as much merit in the opposition’s arguments. On Wednesday, Cantrell’s Director of Economic Development Jeffrey Schwartz sent a five-page document to opponents that, point by point, pushed back on their concerns.

Henry “Tut” Kinney, an attorney who has been lobbying the council to oppose the contract, told The Lens that the city has simply been hands off in the negotiation process, allowing the BioDistrict to take the lead. He said the council needed to hire an attorney to ensure the contract works for the city.

“I think they’ve been sold something that they have not paid close enough attention to,” Kinney told The Lens on Thursday. “Go hire a lawyer.”

Robert Rivard, another resident who’s been fighting against the proposed contract, said he had mixed emotions about Thursday’s decision.

“I am relieved at the council’s actions, but skeptical as to whether a redraft of the CEA will now include public participation,” he said. “Ideally, prior to a new CEA the City should formally consult city-wide with its citizens.”

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...