ArtWorks building sale complete; culinary institute hopes to open in 2016 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Louisiana ArtWorks building on Howard Ave. in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.

The board of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has completed buying the former ArtWorks building near Lee Circle from the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute for $8 million and has signed an agreement to have the nonprofit institute operate a $32 million culinary and hospitality training center there.

In addition to the purchase price, the Convention Center said Monday that the plan calls for another $4 million to go toward improvements to the building, which will reopen in 2018 with two culinary labs, two baking and pastry labs, a restaurant lab, a wine and spirits lab, a large event center including a banquet kitchen, a café open to the public and traditional classroom and office spaces.

NOCHI, which is backed by several local culinary and hospitality industry leaders, bought the five-story building in 2014 but had trouble getting its plans for the training center off the ground, leading to discussions with the Convention Center management.

The center's board voted in October to move ahead with plans to purchase the nearly 94,000-square-foot building.

The 40-year agreement calls for NOCHI to provide for the full construction and ongoing maintenance of the facility and maintain consistent annual enrollment across all its vocational training and development programs.

Melvin Rodrigue, chairman of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority and president of Galatoire's Restaurant, said a culinary and hospitality institute in New Orleans is "long overdue."

NOCHI, he said, "will help bring our already excellent local restaurant and hospitality service levels up to new heights by providing for a long-term, sustainable plan for the development of our hospitality workforce.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards also hailed the deal as a model public-private partnership.

“Together, we’re leveraging the strength of a key industry in our state to build a resource that will create greater access and opportunity for the community," he said.

“The hospitality industry is the region’s largest employer with a workforce of more than 88,000 individuals, and it is growing rapidly,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “NOCHI’s capacity to double the region’s output of skilled workers will alleviate the unmet demand."

Tulane's A.B. Freeman School of Business will also have office and classroom space at the facility at Howard Avenue and Carondelet Street.

NOCHI, whose backers include restaurateur Ti Martin, of Commander's Palace, and chef John Besh, bought the building for $6.2 million in 2014, though the Convention Center authority has said it was appraised recently at $13 million.

NOCHI will still need to raise funds to complete the project.

The Convention Center authority will have access to some of the space at the institute as part of the agreement.

The building was constructed in 1915 for the Bradford Furniture Co. It was extensively remodeled starting in 2003 for Louisiana ArtWorks, planned as a combination site for local artists to work and tourist attraction, but the $25 million project ran into numerous delays and cost overruns. It opened on a limited basis around 2009 but soon closed.

The Louisiana Artists Guild, which was created in the mid-1990s to construct and manage the property, selected NOCHI from a group of three finalists to take over control of the property after ArtWorks closed.

Carol Markowitz, NOCHI’s executive director, said that besides the money from the Convention Center, the donation of the institute’s kitchen equipment and both new-market and state historic tax credits, NOCHI will need to raise $12 million through a capital campaign to fully fund the $32 million development.

“We already have soft commitments for $3.6 million of that target, and with the Convention Center partnership finalized, the next phase of our fundraising will commence immediately,” Markowitz said in an email. “A leasehold mortgage will enable us to start construction this spring while we finish our capital campaign.”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.