Public tourism body changes its mission under plan from Mayor Cantrell

11 Feb 2020 11:28 AM
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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 have to be ratified by the town Council before they’re final, but if so when that happens, the business 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 end up being 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, so that it is likely that the proposal will go through the full council aswell. 

“For years there were culture-bearers who would like to and feel that they have 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 the fund, we’ll be able to create a few of that long term revenue.”

The new fund could have roughly $3.9 million to dole out this season. But specifically what this fund can look like and where in fact the money will go continues to be largely unclear. 

On Monday, the NOTMC board voted to improve the organization’s bylaws and articles of incorporation. There have been two major changes. 

First, the board changed the first item on its set of “purposes and powers” in its articles of incorporation. The board removed language about marketing and advertising to tourists all over the world and replaced it with a fresh mission: “To aid the cultural economy and culture-bearers of the town of New Orleans through programs and projects, and advance, promote and keep maintaining tourism that's equitable and sustainable.”

Second, the votes changed the cosmetic of the board. Beneath the changes, the board would shrink from 15 members to just seven. Four of them will be “culture bearers” or “people with expertise in the cultural economy” appointed by the mayor. The other three seats will be taken by council members: the District B council member, the District C council member and a third person in the council’s choosing. District B covers the Central Business District and far of Mid-City and Uptown while District C covers the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, Algiers and elements of Treme.  

But aside from those two concrete alterations, forget about details were added explaining who is qualified to receive grants, what the application form and decision making process will be or what rubric the brand new board use to determine how the amount of money is dispersed. 

At a previous meeting, board member Sheila Burns remarked that the term “cultural economy” continues to be undefined.

“Cultural economy is such a worldwide term,” she said. “It can be prudent to put some kind of definition to that.”

The board didn’t wrap up adding any longer details, but Cox remarked that you may still find checks to ensure the money is being spent properly and opportunities for the general public to supply their input. The meetings of the brand new board, that will decide several details, would be open to the general public. And the brand new fund would still need to submit an gross annual spending plan to the town Council for approval, just as NOTMC currently does. 

The changes to NOTMC are the consequence of Cantrell’s ‘fair share deal’ that she brokered with state officials and the hospitality industry last year hoping of dedicating more hotel taxes to local infrastructure projects, particularly at the Sewerage and Water Board. The offer included a host of trade-offs between metropolis and hospitality industry. 

One facet of the program was that the majority of NOTMC’s budget and duties will be absorbed by New Orleans and Co., a private-nonprofit formerly referred to as the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The vast majority of NOTMC’s funding and obligations were used in New Orleans and Co. by the end of last year.

During city budget hearings in the fall, several council members expressed concerns about the lack of accountability for the huge amount of money 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. The majority 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 a few 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 possibly be used “for infrastructure or other purposes of the city.” 

The fair share deal is meant to bring New Orleans $27 million in revenue every year. Part of that calculation was the $3.9 million earned by the hotel occupancy tax. The town will will have to find that money somewhere else. 

Cox said the money was going to the brand new fund rather than infrastructure for two reasons. First, he said it had been “the right move to make” for the city’s culture bearers. Second, he said that the tax was at first passed in the name of financial development, so that it is legally difficult to divert those funds to infrastructure. 

“The administration is working to ensure that every dollar that was promised to be allocated to infrastructure, will be allocated to infrastructure,” Cox said during the meeting. “This culture fund isn't being spent at the trouble of infrastructure.”

It remains unclear how metropolis will fill the $3.9 million hole.

“We’re working on it, but we’re confident,” Cox told The Lens following the meeting.