As the New Orleans City Council voted Nov. 21 to increase the sales tax by 1 percent in the shops in the planned Magnolia Marketplace shopping plaza, Central City residents voiced concern that the city's highest sales taxes will be in one of its poorest neighborhoods. District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell responded with her vision of a retail renaissance that will make Claiborne Avenue a citywide shopping destination.
The Magnolia Marketplace planned at South Claiborne Avenue and Toledano Street will open in March 2015 with six national retailers — T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Michael's, PetSmart, Shoe Carnival and Ulta Beauty — and the fast-food restaurant Raising Cane's. The $25 million project is being financed by a combination of direct investment and federal New Market Tax Credits, but developers have said they need $2.3 million more to close the gap on the major costs associated with replacing the old utility lines on the site.
City officials have agreed to borrow the money for the project and to pay it back by raising the sales tax by an additional 1 percent on the shops at the site. When the debt is paid off, the tax will expire — in about 15 years, based on "conservative" estimates of revenue there, officials have said.
Central City resident Liza Mazique agreed the shops and jobs will benefit the neighborhood and that attracting retail is a reasonable economic-development strategy. She found it "hard to fathom," however, why the financing strategy couldn't have involved the new property taxes that will flow from bringing the former public land back into commerce, rather than a "predatory" and regressive sales tax increase. "This is not a lot of money, $2.3 million," Mazique said.
City Council members generally had high praise for the project. Council President Jackie Clarkson said people in the neighborhood will see their property values rise, and that "we can't keep shopping in other people's parishes." Council Vice President Stacy Head said the project will both increase access to retail for neighborhood residents who don't have cars and be cheaper than driving to Harahan — even with the tax — for those who do.
The project is in Cantrell's district, and she has taken the lead in presenting it to the public. At the hearing, Central City resident Roschelle Rumley told Cantrell she had gathered a petition of 200 names against the tax, but with Thursday's vote looming, "I feel like it was just pushed to the side."
City leaders have tried and failed for years to attract prominent retailers to Claiborne Avenue, Cantrell said, and can't afford to lose this opportunity to realize "a bigger vision for Claiborne Avenue. ... When we do this right, this sets the tone for additional retailers to come to Claiborne Avenue," Cantrell said. "If we do it wrong, we may not see it." — Robert Morris | Uptown Messenger