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2002-05-14
New Orleans, LA. Wal-Mart Developer Bought More Than Just Land

In New Orleans, Louisiana, money doesn't just talk -- it speaks at public hearings. According to the Urban Conservancy and the Times Picayune newspaper, the developer who recently pushed a Wal-Mart superstore into the Lower Garden district of New Orleans, had a generous payroll that included some "community activists", who spoke early and often in favor of the plan. Here's the Urban Conservancy account: "This week brings new revelations to the insult heaped on injury that is Wal-Mart in the Lower Garden District. The release of a document listing the contractors' fees paid by the euphemistically named Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) identifies that many of the "concerned citizens" that came forward in support of the project were actually on the payroll. Perhaps this is why HRI CEO Pres Kabacoff had to defend the inflated figures the independent audit uncovered, numbers that make the St. Thomas redevelopment one of the most expensive in the country, ahead of cities including Los Angeles and New York City. The City Council disregarded the suggestions of the city's professional planners in their decision to allow the Wal-Mart to be built essentially to Wal-Mart's specifications -- city laws and historic districts be damned. The "Blue Ribbon" committee felt that it was not incumbent upon them to challenge the word of the "most successful retailer in America" in the words of committee member John Koerner. Councilmember Oliver Thomas used this stamp of pseudo-experts to hit a home run for donors to his election campaign, including Kabacoff, Wal-Mart and the owner of the land the Wal-Mart is to be built on (Darryl Berger, in partnership with Kabacoff). The cost of the "Blue Ribbon" committee was approximately $15,000, paid in the form of fees to ex-Planning Commissioner and longtime loyalist of Mayor Mark Morial, Kristina Ford. Scheduling meetings and making copies is apparently strenuous work, and ironically is more lucrative than the average annual salary of a Wal-Mart "associate"...The list of "third-party" contractors released recently by HRI helps complete the circle of paid influence. Minister Marie Galatas, whose church was previously known as "Queen of the South Christian Association," and one of the first to raise the "racist" label about opponents of the troubled project was paid consulting fees of $35,000. Others who received payments included Felton White, who delivered many a heartfelt speech about "the people of St. Thomas," and, it turns out, was paid $60,000 for services rendered. Danae Columbus of Katz/Columbus was paid $55,000 for services that included advertising in the Times Picayune decrying "racist preservationists." Columbus' business partner Allan Katz, has written a number of fulsome pieces on Wal-Mart's entrance into the Lower Garden District that portrayed the issue as a battle of economic development versus preservationists. His work has been published in weekly e-mails, faxes and on the web acting as the moderator of a "news" section of a local website. Urban Systems, the contractor who delivered the only traffic study of the area to date, should be disappointed. They were paid only $25,000 for their services, painting a rosy picture of post Wal-Mart traffic on Tchoupitoulas. Pollster Silas Lee was paid $20,000 for published polling results like "[of the poll/focus group participants] 69% believe that the benefits of the Wal-Mart project outweigh the negatives." And what city contract would be complete without a plum for a Morial ally? Bobby Major's company, Major Services was paid $350,000 in consulting fees. Perhaps all of these "professional services" have led to what the independent audit identified as inflated costs that the HRI CEO defended as premiums for taking on this "risk." If we are to consider Wal-Mart to be the master retailer they are, clearly they are not moving into the St. Thomas as a risky venture, unless using one of their suburban model stores instead of one of the new Dallas models is a risk. As many critics have asked, why can't New Orleans do better? The answer is economics, plain and simple. It is less expensive for developers, major retailers and anyone with deep pockets to buy influence in New Orleans than it is to compete on even a slightly level playing field. Until we demand a change in how business is done in this city, how decisions are made, including how zoning laws are enforced, we will be sold out to the benefit of a few velociraptors who will take what they can from the city and leave us in a worse mess than before. These same people will wag their fingers at our "regressivism" when the next scheme is launched.




What you can do: When local anti-sprawl activist Bill Borah found out that the "Blue Ribbon committee" appointed by the Mayor to "review" the proposed Wal-Mart project was going to be paid $15,000 by the developer, HRI, he told the newspaper: "I thought the committee was supposed to be objective..(this) is just another illustration of how bankrupt the planning process is in this city." The developer protested that it was "nonsense on stilts" to suggest that the panel was "insincere and dishonest in their unanimous approval of the St. Thomas project because HRI paid an organizatoinal fee." But in a Picayune column, writer James Gill said the committee "rolled over and gave Wal-Mart just about everything they wanted." The release by the developer of his list of "third party contractors", including community activists on the payroll, was "just having a laugh at our expense," Gill said. For more background, search this database by "New Orleans", and contact www.urbanconservancy.org.










 
 
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