ArtWorks building to be sold to culinary institute

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Louisiana ArtWorks building on Howard Ave. in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Louisiana ArtWorks building on Howard Ave. in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.

The Louisiana ArtWorks building on Howard Avenue near Lee Circle, most recently the site of a well-intentioned but ill-fated arts venture, will become a culinary school.

The New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute has been selected to take over the building, an agent for the building announced Wednesday.

The Louisiana Artist Guild, the nonprofit that owns the building, selected the culinary institute from a group of three finalists.

The nonprofit institute — led by restaurateur Ti Martin, of Commander’s Palace, chef John Besh and other culinary and hospitality industry leaders — has agreed to pay $6.2 million for the 93,649-square-foot building at Howard Avenue and Carondelet Street.

The deal is expected to close in 60 days, following a period of due diligence, according to Corporate Realty, the agent for the building. It has been approved by the state and the city, which loaned the previous project money.

The $25 million ArtWorks project, conceived by the Arts Council of New Orleans, was designed to give artists a space to work and to put the artists themselves on public display as they created. It received financial backing from the city and state as well as private investors, but the project was in debt almost from the time it opened in 2004. Meanwhile, it never gained much traction among artists or visitors and quickly was labeled a boondoggle. The five-story building has been unoccupied since 2011.

The city spends $600,000 a year paying the principal on a $7 million 2002 loan from the Department of Housing and Development for the ArtWorks project. The building’s owner, the Louisiana Artist Guild, owes the city more than $10 million, a city spokesman said. The state has $8.5 million to $12 million tied up in the building, said Bill Hines, an attorney with Jones Walker who helped to find a buyer for the building.

The Louisiana Artist Guild, created in the mid-1990s to construct and manage the ArtWorks property, put the building up for sale in the summer. The agency, which was separate from but affiliated with the Arts Council of New Orleans, had not been in operation since the building closed three years ago. But a board was assembled last year for the express purpose of reviewing bids and selecting a buyer for the property. The board, led by Hines, began reviewing applications in December.

The culinary school beat out proposals from a business incubator called Launch Pad and the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum, which has long been searching for a home.

Hines said the board considered all three projects to be qualified.

“It isn’t like one of these projects blew the other two away,” Hines said. “The truth is if any one of them had been the only bidder they would have won. We wouldn’t have said they were nonresponsive.”

In the end, Hines said, the culinary institute was the best fit because it best met the board’s informal, four-pronged test: It has a “public purpose,” which was required to get the state to sign off on the deal. The city was happy with the proposed purchase price. Meanwhile, the board was satisfied with the institute’s ability to execute and was convinced that it would have both the money and the business plan to carry the project through to completion, Hines said.

The culinary institute will partner with Delgado Community College to operate the culinary and hospitality school. The Legislature has given Delgado permission to issue $9 million in bonds to construct a hospitality and culinary center. Delgado also intends to enter into agreements with Tulane University and the University of New Orleans to offer courses at the site. The school is expected to open in early 2016.