Armstrong Park Advocates Grapple With How To Fund Cultural Center

Louis Armstrong park” by Jason Riedy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

At last week’s City Council meeting, members of the Save Our Soul (SOS) Coalition laid out their vision for the redevelopment of the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park as a cultural center. After hosting several community-wide meetings, SOS leaders came to a decision that the proposed center was the best use for the historic structure. They also analyzed results from a survey completed by more than 300 citizens, the vast majority of whom favored the cultural center concept. 

Mayor Cantrell had previously identified the Municipal Auditorium as an ideal location for a new City Hall in part because FEMA has allocated $38 million in Hurricane Katrina recovery dollars to repair the building. Though the renovation costs would greatly exceed $38 million, the FEMA funds would get the project started while other sources were being identified, including the possible sale of bonds. The original plan also called for major additions to the building and a new parking garage across Basin Street. Though Cantrell said those plans were being scaled back, SOS members aren’t convinced. They say bid documents were never amended.   

After being met with strong opposition not just from Treme and French Quarter residents but also from citizens all across New Orleans, Cantrell held a private meeting with the SOS coalition which was closed to members of the press. This reporter was told to leave before the meeting even began. Only a representative from The Lens who was unknown to Cantrell’s staff was able to remain. 

Attendees at the July 20th meeting said that Cantrell offered to give SOS “90 days” to come up a plan to fully fund the renovation and operation of the auditorium going forward. SOS says the phrase “90 days” was misleading because it fell after the city’s deadline to receive proposals from other bidders. 

The City of New Orleans previously released a request for qualifications and a request for proposals for the municipal auditorium complex. SOS members made numerous requests for Cantrell to withdraw the proposals. They claim the mayor refused and indicated that FEMA has been waiting patiently for the city to begin the auditorium’s renovation and could withhold funding if certain deadlines were not met. Responses to the RFP and RFQ were originally due mid-July. Cantrell extended that deadline to October 11, two day after the fall municipal elections. Most political consultants expect her to win re-election outright on October 9th.       

SOS has also turned to Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer whose district includes Treme, the French Quarter and Armstrong Park. Palmer pledged to assist SOS by creating an Interim Zoning District for the entire Armstrong Park footprint. Approved by the Council, the legislation called for the IZD to exist for one year, unless dissolved by a vote of councilmembers. 

Palmer is thought to be now considering the introduction of a motion that would clearly define the utilization of the Municipal Auditorium site as a cultural center. An SOS spokesperson says the motion is expected to appear on the October 7th city council agenda, the last meeting before the primary election.     

Council President Helena Moreno and Vice President Donna Glapion invited SOS to make last week’s presentation before the Council. They had led a previous effort in which the council created a new zoning designation for City Hall and required the city administration get Council approval on any relocation plans. 

Despite these small victories, SOS stakeholders are concerned that Cantrell still plans to push the relocation forward. Several new councilmembers are expected to take office in January, 2022. Their views on the auditorium and Armstrong Park’s future are still unknown.

With neither staff support from City Hall nor other necessary resources, it is not realistic to think that a volunteer group like SOS could – in less than 90 days – come up with a fully funded plan to renovate, operate and maintain the city-owned property.

SOS is now looking to City Council, state legislators and the federal government for assistance. Privately, several councilmembers indicated they might be willing to help. “The Mayor has unrealistically shifted the burden on the SOS Coalition to perform the function of city government. But SOS is preparing to make a substantial commitment to showing the mayor and other city leaders that returning the Municipal Auditorium to a cultural center is in the best interests of the city,” said attorney Dow Edwards, an SOS member. 

Edwards continued that the city hadn’t given them access to information necessary to complete the challenges that the mayor has placed in front of them. “This of course raises the question whether or not the mayor is attempting to sabotage SOS’s ability to deliver that which she has requested,” Dow concluded.     

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