Review panel spurns latest proposals for Six Flags site

Chances that the former Six Flags theme park site in eastern New Orleans will be redeveloped anytime soon seemed dimmer than ever Tuesday after a city review committee spurned the only two responses to the city’s latest call for proposals for reusing the bedraggled 150-acre site.

A member of the committee charged with reviewing the responses called the two proposals an “insult to the people of New Orleans” because they lack specific details about financing, developer qualifications and other matters.

“This is too big of a project, too massive of a development project not to have meat on the bones,” panel member Jeff Hebert said. The proposals offer “nothing of what we need to be able to review to have intelligent conversation,” he said.

Though no one else on the five-member panel was quite so outspoken, they seemed to share Hebert’s sentiments.

“I’m not looking for a pipe dream,” committee member Justin Augustine said. “I’m looking for viable projects that can go to this community.”

The selection committee assembled Tuesday to review proposals from Transformation Village and TPC-NOLA Inc., a subsidiary of Baton Rouge-based Paidia Co., both of which want to put some variation of a theme park and other ancillary components like a shopping mall and a film backlot on the site.

The panel includes three representatives from the Industrial Development Board: Augustine, board Chairman Alan Philipson and Edith Jones; and two from the city: Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and Aimee Quirk, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top adviser on economic development. The IDB acts as landlord for the site.

This is the latest attempt to return the former amusement park — which did not reopen after it flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — to commerce. Several efforts by the Ray Nagin and Landrieu administrations to put the site back into use have failed.

But neither Paidia nor Transformation Village has offered a project worthy of serious consideration, panel members said.

Put simply, the committee wants a developer with money in hand to carry a project from concept to completion. Neither of the current proposers has the cash to do that.

Paidia said in its proposal that it had 90 percent of the projected $50 million cost of its project in place. But $25 million of that would come from construction loans and New Market Tax Credits from First NBC Bank, which has not committed to working with the developer.

Transformation, meanwhile, has proposed that half of its $100 million funding would come from EB-5 capital, or foreign investors. The development team’s leader, Frank Scurlock, admitted, however, that his company has never used that type of financing before and does not have investors lined up.

Both Scurlock and Paidia’s Tonya Pope said they would need some type of commitment from the city that their project had been selected to move forward before investors would offer up solid commitments.

“We need to get into some kind of negotiation phase before we can finalize those dollars,” Pope said.

But Augustine said the city should not even begin seriously negotiating with someone who cannot demonstrate the financial wherewithal to take on the project.

“Everybody thinks the city of New Orleans is just going to give this land away, just hand it over to somebody to play with it. That’s not going to happen,” Augustine said. “That’s a valuable piece of real estate out there.”

Quirk said the proposals also fell short in terms of the developers’ performance history, potential return on investment to the city, financial feasibility, compliance with the city’s disadvantaged business rules and other areas.

The Transformation project, for example, includes plans for land that is not included within the Six Flags boundaries and that is beyond the control of the IDB.

The meeting was the first time the committee formally heard from Scurlock. He showed up with more than a half dozen people and several visual aids, including a building model made of Lego blocks. He said he assumed he would be giving a presentation to the panel, but the committee carried on its meeting as though there were no spectators, only calling on Scurlock to answer questions about his financing.

Both Scurlock and Pope said they will submit even more information to the panel. Neither intends to drop out of the process.

In the meantime, the IDB will continue to accept ideas for the site. The committee, however, did not set a date for its next meeting and may wait until there’s new interest before convening again.