The group promising massive redevelopment in Opelousas returned to the city this week, claiming before the City Council they had secured a $4 billion loan for a new airport, manufacturing plant and a “smart city,” among other projects.
That means the project can move forward “without the city or its citizens having to pay a single dime or dollar,” the construction partner on the project, Charles Watson, told council members.
Watson told council members the group is “pretty far advanced in the preliminary design,” although the group’s 18-minute address to the council did not include any visual presentation of the designs.
Jack Ahart, chairman of Ahart Solutions International, said afterward there wasn’t enough time to show any plans on paper, and that he was asked not to do so.
Ahart told The Advocate that construction can begin on a $300 million factory in the spring of next year. The factory would produce materials for future construction projects in Opelousas while operating with uncommon efficiency, he said. For example, if they decided to focus only on affordable housing, “we can make 10,000 homes a year,” Ahart said
Watson, the construction partner, told council members he would hire only Opelousas contractors.
“At every single stage, we will be partnered with local Opelousas firms, whether it be engineering, whether it be architecture,” Watson told council members. “I can only guess how many suppliers of windows, doors, tiles, cement, paving there must be in Opelousas. I haven’t even started looking.”
Watson said he was “delighted” with the architects and engineers he had discovered in Opelousas, although he did not name any.
The developers that rolled into Opelousas had some big plans to announce last week for St. Landry Parish and the entire Acadiana region.
Ahart repeatedly told the council that news reports had unfairly characterized the project and the individuals involved.
“I’m so upset about the malice and slander and lies in the press,” Ahart told council members.
Haley Ahart-Keiffer, the president of Ahart Solutions International and Jack Ahart's niece, is calling the project the “Steven Ahart Legacy Project” after her father, who died in a small plane crash in 1982 while flying for an Opelousas company. The St. Landry Parish airport is named after Steven Ahart.
Developers have publicly discussed their ideas only in broad terms, without explaining what they mean by a “smart city.”
They met privately with elected officials for about two hours on Monday evening, the night before presenting to the council, said St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot. In that meeting, the group presented some hypothetical digital renderings of what some new buildings on the airport might look like, Fontenot said.
“This was general information,” Fontenot said. “Without it having a label as Opelousas airport, or Opelousas vicinity, it could be anywhere.”
The Advocate reported last month that Ahart-Keiffer emerged from personal bankruptcy in early 2017, as she promoted herself as “one of the most powerful and influential female executives today.”
Jack Ahart on Tuesday presented to City Council members what he described as a credit commitment letter to finance the Opelousas project. He emphasized that it was addressed to his niece, Ahart-Keiffer, who joined Ahart and Watson in the presentation.
“Our lenders are making a loan for these projects, not to me as the chairman, but to Haley,” Ahart said.
Ahart did not respond to a subsequent request for a copy of the letter.
He said the loan is coming from Plate Ltd., whose United States representative, Gbenga Adalumo, joined Ahart-Keiffer in visiting Louisiana last month. Adalumo said then that as much as $10 billion could be available for Opelousas.
A man listed on Plate’s website as its senior vice president, Farzad Kaj, told The Advocate last month that he was “shocked” to hear Adalumo and others had made public commitments to the Opelousas project. Adalumo, who is facing a home foreclosure in New York, is no longer listed as a representative on the Plate website.
Ahart said after the Tuesday council meeting that Kaj, who is based in Germany, “has nothing to do with Plate in Canada and the U.S.” Kaj is one of four individuals listed on the Plate website, along with a chief executive officer, strategic advisor and a different U.S. representative, Silva Pillarisetty.
Pillarisetty said he didn’t know anything about the project, and referred questions to the strategic advisor, Shaya Ivy, who is based in Toronto. Ivy did not respond to an email on Wednesday.
Ahart said a “memorandum of understanding” between the parish and developers is necessary to secure the loan. Fontenot said he wants a mandate from the St. Landry Parish Council before signing one.
The draft memorandum presented to Fontenot states that neither party is obligated “to the transfer of funds,” and that it can be terminated at any time with written notice. Ahart Solutions agrees to provide all financing, materials and labor for the project, but the parish also agrees “to give any tax benefits available” and to help secure federal or state funding, “now or in the future.”
Ahart Solutions has not submitted standard project worksheets with information concerning investment, facilities, equipment and employee wages that state economic development officials use to assess projects for incentives, said Bill Rodier, executive director of St. Landry Parish Economic Development.
Rodier said developers rarely forgo available state financing.
“If they wanted to write a check for everything, it’s not a requirement,” Rodier said. “It’s possible that could happen, I just don’t know that personally I’ve ever seen that happen when you’re talking about these types of dollars.”