Cantrell Prepared To Let Municipal Auditorium Rot; Stakeholders Ask for Tour

Photo Courtesy of Danae Columbus

Mayor Cantrell has infuriated Treme residents and culture bearers with her decision to leave the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium “unsecure” while the process to relocate City Hall into the historic structure pauses. Without it being secured, the 90-year-old building will continue to deteriorate. 

“Mayor Cantrell’s arrogance, disrespect and bullheadedness is an indication of what elders would say when one is full of themselves, said Sabrina Mays, a spokesperson for the Save Our Soul coalition. “Her irresponsible behavior disturbs the spirit of life we know in New Orleans. With all of our differences, when it comes to protecting our rituals and traditions, Mayor Cantrell stands on the outside. This issue can’t be about her. It has to be about what is good for the city. New Orleans must do better,” Mays explained.  

FEMA allocated $39 million to repair the auditorium’s damage from Hurricane Katrina. Though the Municipal Auditorium is structurally sound, it still needs lots of work. The roof has gaping holes and there are several dozen broken windows. Until Mayor Mitch Landrieu had the building boarded up, the Municipal Auditorium may have been the city’s largest squat with 50 to 100 vagrants camped out with their hot plates and other belongings, according to Leo Watermeier, president of Friends of Armstrong Park.  

Watermeier said today that Mayor Cantrell should open the building for the Save Our Soul coalition and councilmembers to see its real condition. “I told Mayor Cantrell that many New Orleanians are attached to the Municipal Auditorium. Maybe she couldn’t understand that because she wasn’t from here,” Watermeier continued. 

The City Council voted yesterday to postpone the development of any government buildings in Armstrong Park for a year and are also supporting Treme residents’ call for a public process. The Council will now approve any relocation of City Hall the administration might recommend. 

In a press release circulated Thursday evening, Mayor Cantrell announced that she would postpone the RFP and RFQ for services on the Armstrong Park site for 90 days. She also alleged that the use of FEMA funds associated with the building “are in questions.” Yet the government agency that oversees Katrina funds, GOHSEP, has indicated that the city council’s actions did not preclude the $38 million in FEMA funding from being used to repair the auditorium.  

The 90-day timeline coincides with the campaign cycle for the fall municipal elections. Stakeholders fear that Cantrell only created the new timeline as a rouse to take the heat off of her during the campaign. The efforts to relocate City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium are unpopular with residents in neighborhoods across the city. Treme stakeholders say that Cantrell will push ahead as soon as her re-election is assured.  

Though the current council has looped themselves in on the decision making process, next year’s council will have at least two members, perhaps more. District D Councilmember Jared Brossett is term- limited and will be replaced by a new face who may or may not support the relocation. Interim councilmember Donna Glapion agreed not to run for the at-large seat when she was appointed. Two current councilmembers – Kristin Palmer and Jared Brossett, along with former state Senator J.P. Morrell and others, are vying for the at large seat.  

Cantrell appears to have dug her heels in on the relocation and may be willing to wait out another year before the project can move forward. Mayors have a lot of power and lots of money that can be passed to district councilmembers for infrastructure repairs and other projects. Cantrell could pull out all the stops to get the four votes she will need to approve the relocation. 

“Bringing back the Municipal Auditorium to the people has always been a priority for the Cantrell administration that has been blighted for 15 years and create a new welcoming space for an existing City Hall that is in need of repair,” the city’s statement said.

Watermeier, who resides directly across the street from the park, has been fighting City Hall for years to secure the building to ward off further damage. In addition to the roof and windows, the building’s mechanical equipment located in the basement needs the most repair. “After Katrina the city patched the roof but that was 14 years ago and the patch is long gone. The building is basically concrete. The wood floors in the auditorium look fine. The seats are in good shape,” he explained.

He, like Treme residents and other stakeholders, is hoping the auditorium will be restored and again used for cultural activities. “We’re pushing to restore the Municipal Auditorium and put it back in use for cultural and community events. To get it back up and running is the real goal. The grassroots efforts by Treme residents triggered a lot of people’s memories and made them appreciate the cultural significance of Congo Square, the Municipal Auditorium and Armstrong Park even more,” Watermeier concluded.        

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