Mar 072014
 

Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

For those of us whose memories go back a long ways, one of the all-time great New Orleans stories is the transformation of the Audubon Park Zoo from an “animal ghetto” to a world-class zoo that is considered an American gem.

It all started in the 1970s when then-Mayor Moon Landrieu, irate about complaints that the zoo was a vile-smelling, dirty place where the animals suffered from a lack of care, sent a promising young administrative assistant Ron Forman to the Uptown outpost to see what if anything could be done.

Forman, an ambitious, visionary fellow led a revolt that ousted the old regime and put in place a new regime backed by a host of eager volunteers and put Forman in charge.

The story of how Forman transformed the zoo into a place of wonder that now attracts more than 2 million visitors a year and then created a world-class aquarium by the riverfront and an Insectarium at the old Custom House building on Canal Street has often been told.

Now, the Audubon Institute is asking New Orleans voters to renew a property tax millage that will be on the March 15 ballot. Not everyone loves Forman or the Audubon Institute but the critics are certainly a minority in this town. Unless they show up pretty soon with an eye-catching campaign, the Audubon Institute’s record of accomplishments and credibility should lead to an easy victory at the polls on March 15.

The tax renewal is for 4.2 mills that would produce about $11.9 million a year for the Audubon Institute to continue doing what it has been doing for some four decades. Lined up behind the tax renewal are many of the usual suspects, including Archie Manning who remembers teaching sons Peyton and Eli how to throw tight spirals on the green of Audubon Park. Also behind the tax renewal are Xavier University President Norman Francis and icon Irma Thomas whose concerts at the Park on Mother’s Day are New Orleans classics.

Forman says the Audubon Institute, run by a board but always responsive to Forman’s visions, has been a diligent steward of the public’s tax revenues. The Institute has used the tax revenues to bond major projects that have amounted to more than $300 million over the years. The Audubon Institute now employs nearly 300 permanent and part-time employees. The Park, Zoo, Aquarium and Insectarium are all impeccably maintained and are touted by visitors who recognize them as world-class facilities.

We’ll be voting for the tax renewal on March 15 and hope you will join us. We sometimes wonder what would have happened if Moon Landrieu had not sent young Ron Forman to check out the zoo these many years ago. Perhaps another Ron Forman sooner or later would have come along. Or, perhaps not. New Orleans is fortunate indeed he saw the animal ghetto of that time and realized that something better could be created that would enhance New Orleans, hopefully forever.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board, and Columbus is working on the campaigns of Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Charles Foti. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.

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  • david

    Another Ron Forman would have come along because he is paid $513,579/year per this website: http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=3332#.Uxn-86SYaUl

  • Jason Coleman

    Another tax! The original vision was for a World Class Aquarium not an annual paycheck from the citizens of New Orleans. The Audubon Institute has losses for the last decade and needs to be profitable again. We need to support them however not with another blank check.

    • Jeffrey Pipes Guice

      Agreed! Vote “No” until the citizens have more time to discuss this new millage. Shame on Ron Forman and Jackie Clarkson, and the entire City Council, for sneaking this onto the ballot without an open discussion. Is it even legal?

  • Lenora Hess White

    We need our family-oriented attractions to continue to be top notch for our visitors. The city is just not about Bourbon Street…. re-newing the milliage is fine with me.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Not a renewal. This is a new tax. higher than what we’ve been paying.

      • broadmoorer

        Hmmm thanks for the info, Owen. Not surprising that that wasn’t mentioned in the article.

    • TraveLAr

      Lenora, you have made a good point. Many cities focus their improvement efforts solely on their downtowns, thinking that if they just have the perfect Main Street USA the whole greater metro area will prosper. But to its credit, NOLA has had the sense to put development money into areas throughout the city, and the parks have continued as solid major attractions even as we have seen our downtown change in character. They’re not a panacea for all of our problems, but they are a positive force for many reasons.

  • TimGNO

    This article (paean?), asinine as it is, entirely fails to offer any benefits New Orleanians derive from their “$40 per person per year” — Ron Forman’s words, not mine. Last I checked, people pay at the gate to get into Audubon facilities, which are run for-profit and don’t pay any appreciable tax back to Orleans Parish.

    And I’ve never once heard a tourist say, “I’m here to see the zoo/aquarium/insectarium.”

    No wonder THINKING TAXPAYERS will just “Say NO to the Audubon Tax” on March 15! (https://www.facebook.com/NOtoAudubonTaxes)

  • Jackson

    50 years is a LONG time, I’d be more likely to support this if if was a shorter, renewable millage that we’d vote on more often. The original 50 year 0.4 mill is fine and the 1986 3.8 mill addition was added to build the aquarium. In the 28 years since 1986 we now have an aquarium (cool), an insectarium (great job), and other projects built with the combined 4.2 millage. Again, 50 years is a long time and I fail to see how adding to the nature center and other small projects (in comparison to aquarium and insectarium) require the amount of money that’s only going to grow as New Orleans assessments and property tax revenues increase. A shorter millage that could be decreased if needed in 15 (or renewed at same level if showing need!), would have more likely gained my vote.

    I’d also be more likely to join if this actually meant something like the money I pay through my property taxes reducing a membership cost, even on a sliding scale. Orleans Parish only is being asked to subsidize something that benefits the entire metro area. Our places here should free 7 days/week rather than double dipping on Orleans Parish residents. This is an entirely different animal than public funds for a sports stadium, theater, etc that attract multiple public and private entities (sports teams, concerts, home shows etc in stadiums) in which cities can recoup money easier.

  • Jeffrey Pipes GUICE

    While I respect the opinion of Allan and Danae, some of Nola’s best pr experts, I still haven’t been served enough of the Kool Aid. But apparently a few pillars in the community have. Am I to understand that the Audubon Institute will receive an additional $11.9 million dollars for each of the next 50 years from Nola taxpayers if this millage increase passes? I need more information and more time to think about it. Will I still have to pay if I vote “no” against it? I just need more time… Will Ron Forman continue to receive his $800,000 combined annual salary or will it be increased if this millage increase passes? I still need more answers… If the Audubon Institute will earn revenues of over $300 million in the next 10 years, why do they need so much more money? I can assume that the Audubon Institute is already extremely profitable, with such salaries that the senior executives receive. If the Audubon Institute is already so well-managed and profitable, then why do they need more money? I love Archie Manning and I love our zoo and aquarium, but I need more time and more answers before I vote “yes” on March 15.

  • pfvayda

    Allan, it is my understanding that this is NOT a renewal but a new tax. Audubon does not need more money. The city has more pressing issues.

  • Owen Courrèges

    newbie,

    How indeed? They lie and call it a “renewal,” then the vote occurs during less conspicuous run-off election.