On Wednesday, the Jefferson Parish Council will consider a controversial new proposal to radically remake Fat City and change it from a diverse collection of bars, restaurants, businesses and low-income housing to a “family-friendly mixed use area” with low-income housing. Notice that I repeated “low-income housing”.
The Fat City area of Metairie was once the residential hot spot for East Jefferson. Like most things, the glitter on Fat City has faded over time and it’s not what it once was. Unfortunately, no plan, proposal or ordinance will ever return Fat City to its glory days.
For the past 30 years, there have been 2 constants in Fat City: drugs and low-income housing. Post Katrina, both issues along with the influx of illegal immigrants, have helped significantly impact Fat City in a negative way. Unfortunately, the “New” Fat City Plan does nothing to correct any of these issues.
Instead, the “New” Fat City Plan wants to severely curtail the sale of alcoholic beverages in bars, restaurants and convenience stores and impose new rules on all businesses in Fat City. Basically, this proposal will determine what type of businesses are “allowed” to be in Fat City and any business that doesn’t meet the new zoning criteria will be denied entry.
The “New” Fat City Plan calls for 3 new Zoning Districts, a family-friendly pedestrian corridor along 18th Street, multi-story buildings and a potential hotel, among other things.
The proposal specifies not only the restriction of the sale of alcoholic beverages in bars, restaurants and convenience stores between Midnight and 11am Sunday – Thursday and 1am and 11am Friday and Saturday, but also imposes a myriad of restrictions on the types of business allowed in Fat City, the amount that buildings should be set aside from the street, height and parking restrictions, additional soundproofing for bars and nightclubs, 24-hour video monitoring, security controls, and more.
The plan also calls for the added bureaucracy of a “Parking Management Entity” and the addition of a “Business Development District”.
Despite the fact that Fat City business owners and landlords will need to incur thousands of dollars in new costs to comply with these new regulations, the Parish has not set forth a plan to compensate the business owners and landlords either directly or in the form of low-interest loans for the investment required for compliance to the new zoning regulations.
In an ironic twist, due to the cost of the additional video security and soundproofing required of Fat City businesses that serve alcoholic beverages in the new zoning ordinance, Adult Uses (Strip Clubs) are exempt and won’t be required to make these investments. Strip Clubs will be permitted in Fat City for 2 years so they can amortize their investments. Other businesses, including bars, will not be amortized.
The proposed changes along with a reduction in hours, will force many Fat City bar owners to close their doors.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng are the leading proponents of the “New” Fat City proposal.
AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE: THE FAT CITY TASK FORCE, OMNI BANK AND EAST JEFFERSON GENERAL HOSPITAL
The proposal was crafted by the Fat City Task Force, an 11-member politically appointed committee that includes just 1 Fat City business owner, Tommy Cvitanovich from Drago’s. Ironically or coincidentally, five members of the Fat City Task Force are also board members of Omni Bank and two are on the board of East Jefferson General Hospital. Omni Bank Chairman Jim Hudson, a member of the Task Force, has been a vocal opponent of bars in Metairie. Hudson also serves as Vice Chairman of East Jefferson General Hospital. Sheriff Normand is on the board of EJGH.
In addition to these connections, Omni Bank is the fiscal agent for Jefferson Parish. Omni Bank has contributed thousands of dollars to the political campaigns of Sheriff Normand and Councilwoman Lee-Sheng, and every member of the Jefferson Parish Council except John Young. Councilman Young has only received $500 in contributions from Omni Bank.
Sheriff Normand was Councilwoman Lee-Sheng’s campaign manager in her quest to be elected Councilwoman.
Other members of Omni Bank’s Board of Directors that are also members of the Fat City Task Force include former Parish President Tim Coulon and Real Estate Developers Jack Stumpf and Henry Shane. Mr. Shane is also the current Chairman of East Jefferson General Hospital and owns an apartment complex in Fat City. The redevelopment of apartments was not mentioned in this ordinance.
The connections don’t end there. Pat LeBlanc, an attorney and a member of the Task Force and Omni Bank Board, also spoke in Favor of the Fat City Proposal at a recent Planning Advisory Board hearing and, with Hudson, spoke out against The Blue Monkey, a bar that was set to open on Causeway Blvd. Councilwoman Lee-Sheng voted to deny The Blue Monkey it’s license to sell alcohol, even after The Blue Monkey had received approval from the Jefferson Parish Planning Department. Ms. LeBlanc has served on three separate politically-appointed boards to reshape Fat City.
In fact, only three members of the public spoke at the public hearing against The Blue Monkey: Mr. Hudson, Ms. LeBlanc and another Omni Bank employee. In spite of the fact that there are several bars in the area, The Blue Monkey was denied a permit because they "didn't fit the neighborhood".
”FACTS ARE STUBBORN, BUT STATISTICS ARE MORE PLIABLE.” Mark Twain
On radio talk shows and other media interviews, Sheriff Normand and Councilwoman Lee-Sheng have been prone to discuss crime statistics for the Fat City area.
Sheriff Normand and Councilwoman Lee-Sheng contend that public safety is at the root of their desire to remake Fat City.
By using “calls for service” instead of actual police calls as the basis for their statistics, the Sheriff and Councilwoman are being disingenuous and are attempting to persuade the public that this ordinance is based upon “public safety”. “Calls for service” is a term used for every incidence where an officer leaves his vehicle, whether it’s for a traffic stop, to question a suspicious person, or any other action.
Yet, the actual crime statistics that the Sheriff and Councilwoman tout do not support their own argument for restricting the sale of alcohol after Midnight in Fat City.
64% of all the calls for service in Fat City are within the 12-hour period of Noon-Midnight, a time when alcohol will continue to be sold. Only 21% of all the calls for service in Fat City are between the hours of Midnight and 6am, and an additional 15% of the calls are between 6am and Noon, the bulk of the time when alcohol sales will be restricted in Fat City.
Using the Sheriff and Councilwoman’s logic, if alcohol sales are the leading cause of crime in Fat City, it stands to reason that alcohol sales would be restricted between Noon and Midnight when there are more calls for service than Midnight to 6am.
In addition, of the five intersections that JPSO statistics show have the most calls for service in Fat City, 2 are on Division Street. Division Street is widely known to have the largest concentration of illegal drugs in East Jefferson. The Sheriff has not disclosed a plan to combat illegal drugs in Fat City.
IF YOU CAN”T WIN, HARRASS
Recently, reports have surfaced of beefed-up activity by JPSO in a veiled attempt to harass Fat City bar owners and their patrons. JPSO squad cars with lights flashing have been parked directly in front of entrances to Fat City bars for long periods of time for no apparent legitimate police function. Many bar owners have reported what they consider to be other attempts at harassment or retribution for their speaking out over the Fat City ordinance.
Now, the Sheriff has unleashed on new weapon on Fat City bar owners: sales tax audits.
In the past two weeks, ten Fat City bar owners have received letters informing them that their sales tax receipts will be audited with some audits occurring on the morning of September 22nd, the day the Jefferson Parish Council will vote on the proposed Fat City ordinance.
Three Fat City bar owners, with a combined 40 years in the bar business in Jefferson Parish, received their first ever notice of a sales tax audit.
In calls and emails to ten bar owners in random areas of Jefferson Parish, no bar owner reported that they were aware of any bar in Jefferson Parish, except for those in Fat City, that have been audited this year by Jefferson Parish.
In Jefferson Parish, sales tax audits are done at the request of the Sheriff’s office but not done by the Sheriff. The sales tax audits are done by the accounting firm of Pailet Meunier and LeBlanc, a significant campaign contributor to Sheriff Normand. According to state campaign finance reports, since 2007, Pailet Meunier and LeBlanc had contributed $6,000 to Sheriff Normand’s campaign. Pailet Meunier and LeBlanc has also contributed $2,500 to Councilwoman Lee-Sheng’s campaign.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN REAL ANSWERS
For decades, Fat City has been the entertainment hub for Jefferson Parish and, for decades, there have been plans to improve Fat City. This plan takes things several steps further.
“Fat City has been the subject of 8-11 studies over the past few decades, none of them really gaining any traction,” Councilwoman Lee-Sheng said. “I believe this is because none of the studies tackled some of the real problems in Fat City, the ill affects that some of these bars and strip clubs bring to our community.”
Fat City bar owners feel that they are being singled out.
Jason Jaume, owner of The Bar in Fat City, has been a leading critic of the plan. “Everyone wants an improved Fat City. We (the bar owners) feel that we should be a part of the improvement. Why has the Councilwoman not asked us for our input and why aren’t they addressing the other problems in Fat City?”
While ClickJefferson.com is in favor of an improved Fat City, we believe the proposed ordinance goes too far in many areas, is anti-business and doesn’t do anything to impact the real problems of Fat City: drugs, low-income housing and illegal immigrants.
In attempting to place the blame for Fat City's problems on bars and alcohol, the Sheriff and Councilwoman are overlooking other problems including drugs and low-income housing.
If alcohol related crime is a huge issue in Fat City, what specific steps has the Sheriff taken before putting his weight behind this draconian proposal? Has the Sheriff met with Bar Owners and Landlords to discuss the problems in Fat City? Has the Sheriff held training seminars for Bar Owners and Employees to try to mitigate alcohol related crime? The answers, sadly, are: None, No and No.
Shouldn’t the Sheriff, Councilwoman Lee-Sheng and members of Jefferson Parish Government exhaust every possible means necessary before forcing the closure of legitimate business owners and the loss of hundreds of jobs?
If those questions weren’t enough, several other questions remain:
- Why is Sheriff Normand, who was elected to enforce the law and not write laws, getting involved in a neighborhood zoning issue?
- Shouldn’t the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish be a full-time job and shouldn’t the Sheriff abstain from politics, the management of other candidate's campaigns, endorsements, and politically appointed boards?
- Why isn’t the Sheriff tackling the larger problem of drugs in Fat City? Don’t drugs cause more crime than alcohol?
- Why is Craig Tafaro, an active member of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and a business partner with the Sheriff, on the Planning Advisory Board?
- Why doesn’t this plan include the remaking of the low-income housing in Fat City?
- Do the business owners in Lakeside Shopping Center really want a covered walkway along 18th Street from the crack houses on Division Street straight to Lakeside?
- Why are the people of Jefferson Parish not being given the opportunity to vote on these changes?
- Why are a handful of political contributors significantly impacting a single neighborhood in Jefferson Parish? What’s in it for them?
- Why weren’t the current business owners and landlords in Fat City given a seat at the table to discuss their futures? Shouldn’t the Fat City Task Force have included more Fat City Business Owners?
- With the current economy, how can the Parish Council justify the closing of businesses and the almost immediate unemployment of 400 people directly, and hundreds more indirectly while Fat City is remade?
- Why is the Parish gambling that tourists will want to visit a “New” Fat City?
- If a major hotel is built on Arnoult, or anywhere in Fat City, does the area have the needed infrastructure to support the significant increase in traffic? If not, where is that money going to come from?
- Will this proposed ordinance lead to dozens of lawsuits from impacted business owners and landlords that will cost the Parish hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and millions in potential losses? What “politically-connected” law firm will the Parish contract to litigate these law suits?
- If alcohol is a problem in Fat City, won’t the problems just migrate to other portions of Metairie and Jefferson Parish? Is this just the first step in a forced prohibition of alcohol Parish-wide?
- Is this proposal to severely restrict the sale of alcohol within a neighborhood even legal?
With all of these questions and the questionable political connections, ClickJefferson.com believes that it is in the Parish’s best interest for the Council to take a step back and get more input from the people of Jefferson Parish. Fat City is too valuable and impacts too many people, to have decisions made by a politically-connected task force and a politically appointed Planning Advisory Board. The people of Jefferson Parish should determine the fate of Fat City.
After all, wasn’t the Council elected by more than an 11-member politically appointed task force?
The Jefferson Parish Council is scheduled to discuss the proposed rezoning of Fat City at its meeting on Wednesday, September 22nd at 10am at the Yenni Building in Elmwood. There will be a public hearing and the public is invited.
By Walt Bennetti, Publisher of ClickJefferson.com