Proposal pushes transfer of airport from city to state

Published 5:13 pm Tuesday, May 6, 2008

In a bid to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fund development in the city’s business core and attract private investors, regional business leaders want the state to take over New Orleans’ international airport.

Mayor Ray Nagin said he supports the concept but wants to see firm financial details before endorsing any plan. A spokeswoman for Gov. Bobby Jindal said the governor is open to ideas to revive the hurricane-damaged city but wouldn’t comment on a proposed takeover, raising questions about whether the proposal will gain any traction at the Capitol.

The price could be at least $500 million raised in a bond sale.

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House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, a Jindal ally, has introduced legislation to create authorities to oversee the airport and plan for use of the bond proceeds. He did not immediately return a call Monday.

A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency hasn’t seen a proposal and could not comment.

If a deal can be reached, proponents say the city stands to benefit from an infusion of cash for key redevelopment projects along the riverfront and downtown, including the medical, theater and sports districts.

The proposal, pushed by business leaders in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas, calls for the state — in exchange for control of the airport — to commit $40 million a year for 20 years in gambling revenue to pay off debt from the bond issue.

The state would also make investments in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Louisiana’s largest commercial airport. While New Orleans wants to become a gateway to Latin America, the airport, owned by the city but located in neighboring Jefferson Parish, currently offers no direct international service.

“We don’t have the assets to really, adequately invest, to turn it into a true, international airport,” Nagin said. “The state does.”

The airport’s director estimates the facility generates $500,000 a year in sales taxes for the city.

To have any chance, the proposal must be sold as a regional plus for Southeast Louisiana, said Shreveport-based political analyst Elliott Stonecipher.

While New Orleans’ port and its tourism venues have been back in business since late 2005, investment in other economic sectors has lagged as investors watch for signals the city’s business vitality is returning.

“For people investing in a development, they need to know the rules,” said Jay Lapeyre, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council, a group of the city’s top private leaders.

Ron Forman, president of the Audubon Nature Institute and a leader of the effort, said “everyone is at the table, trying to make this happen.” The question, he said, is whether Nagin, Jindal and the business community, which is “almost demanding to get things done,” can come to terms.

Any deal would need approval of the Legislature, which is meeting into next month. If an agreement doesn’t get done this year, “It says, ’It’s the same old New Orleans, that we aren’t able to articulate a good plan and implement it,”’ Forman said.

Nagin said the only hang-ups about the proposed deal in his mind are the price — “whether it’s a $500 million transaction or a $700 million transaction” — and governance. He said he’d like to see the city retain at least 40 percent representation on an airport board.

While “the devil’s in the details,” a deal could be a positive for all sides, he said.

“It’s something I’ve been pushing for quite some time,” said Nagin, who proposed a similar concept years ago. “I just never got a governor who was interested in really considering it, and now we do have one.”