Developer, Tea Party spar over TIFs

by Heather Miller

Additional site-specific sales and occupancy taxes to fund a four-star hotel and convention center for Lafayette have local Tea Party members in an uproar.

Parc Lafayette Developer Glenn Stewart offered a heartfelt apology Wednesday night to Tea Party of Lafayette members following a fiery town hall meeting (photos below story) where he faced unyielding opposition to his proposed taxing districts to fund a luxury hotel and convention center - and responded by calling the Tea Party of Lafayette members idiots.

"I'm sorry I used the word idiot," Stewart said after the meeting. "I should have said lunatic."

Stewart, with the backing of City-Parish President Joey Durel and Lafayette Economic Development Authority President/CEO Gregg Gothreaux, is asking the City-Parish Council to approve two special taxing districts, known as Tax Increment Financing districts, which supporters say are necessary to fund a four-star hotel and convention center near River Ranch.

But the proposed additional 2 cent sales tax and 2 cent hotel occupancy tax at the hotel, and a 1 cent sales tax in the retail development that will surround the hotel, have caused an uproar from TPL members, who argue that the government-backed tax incentives are discriminatory against other developers and question whether government should dictate the types of private businesses required for the city's success.

Stewart's lack of dexterity toward the Tea Partiers prompted a near walkout and clearly didn't help him in winning over his steadfast opponents. The audience, comprised almost entirely of TPL members, demanded an apology from Stewart, as well as City-Parish Councilman Keith Patin, who hosted the meeting to clarify the project's unknowns.

Gothreaux says he supports this TIF because the taxes are specific to the project and those who utilize the facilities, which will be built using state-issued bonds that will be paid off with the revenue from the hotel and convention center's use. Lafayette taxpayers, he says, will not be footing the bill if the project fails.

"The only people liable to pay off the bonds are the developers, period," Gothreaux said during the meeting.

The luxury hotel and attached convention center have been identified by LEDA as an asset Lafayette needs to attract convention and business travelers who currently choose Shreveport and Baton Rouge for conventions because the cities have the connecting hotel and meeting space amenities that Lafayette can't offer. Gothreaux and Stewart say the hotel and convention centers attracting convention tourism to other Louisiana cities have been built using the same kind of economic development districts being introduced here.

"The practical effect of this is other cities in Louisiana are going to capture the tourism and convention business, and we're going to be left in the dust," Stewart opined. "That's the practical aspect of it if this gets turned down. If [Tea Party members] are opposed to TIFs, then they need to go to the state Legislature and change the law, not the City Council."

One valid question raised by a former Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission worker and not discussed before Wednesday was whether Lafayette has the commercial airline capacity to bring in the sizeable conventions being marketed for the hotel and convention center development. Lafayette is not a major metro area, and that would likely be a drawback in attracting much larger conventions due to the lack of significant direct flight service. Lafayette's airport is also served by a number of hubs.

Like Durel and LEDA, LCVC is very much in favor of the project and doesn't think air service is a big obstacle because of the types of regional conventions Stewart will be going after.

"It would be more cost-effective for some of the meetings to fly into larger places where they can get direct flights," says LCVC Public Relations Manager Kelly Strenge. If someone is coming into Lafayette from Los Angeles, for example, they would have to fly in from Houston or another city.  "We're not a first tier city," Strenge explains. "We're like a second tier city, so we're going to get those meetings that look for those second-tier cities for a variety of reasons - for affordability, because they don't want to be in a big city or because of other types of things that attract them here like our technology or the university or sports facilities or even in some cases, our festivals and things like that would attract people here because they want to piggy back off of something fun to do. We would not be able to host a convention that had 40,000 delegates. The city is not that big." Lafayette would more likely be vying for conventions in the 10,000-delegate range, she says. "Usually there will be some driving and some flying in those cases."

Stewart said after the meeting a pending updated feasibility study he is paying for should have all of those specific answers in coming weeks.

Outspoken challengers to the taxing districts described the proposed project as "creating blight," "government selecting the winners and the losers," and even went as far as calling it "money laundering." In the end, Patin, who has been under pressure from the Tea Party to vote against the project, would not commit to a no vote.

"What Keith Patin wants is irrelevant," Patin said after the meeting. "Everyone here made valid points that most people can agree with one way or the other. I have to be attentive to both sides, and they're always in competition with one another."

The City-Parish Council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the ordinance creating the TIFs March 15. Gothreaux says more council votes will be needed after the March 15 vote for the TIFs and cooperative endeavor agreement to formally be approved.

As for Stewart, he's not all that concerned about the project's opposition and what impact it may have on the council's decision. If the council votes him down, his original plans to build a smaller luxury boutique hotel and retail center will move forward - with or without the TIFs and the support of the Tea Party.

"I think [Tea Party members] are a bunch of wannabes who go around threatening our elected officials, and I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves," Stewart said after the meeting. "I think they're the lunatic fringe."

For more on the city's tif over TIFs, read The Independent Weekly's coverage, "All in a TIF."