We have spoken frequently in these columns about the wastefulness of government giveaway programs.
That has earned us the enmity of politicians who like to swan around at ribbon-cuttings and of investors who love to see taxpayers share the risks for their schemes.
So lets take a stroll down memory lane and talk about one of the most massive wastes of government economic development money in Louisiana: the Jazzland theme park in New Orleans.
The remnants of the park have been withering away for 15 years now, visible to all who travel on Interstate 10 heading toward the Mississippi beaches. The project is back in the news this month because Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration is searching for a viable plan to redevelop the site. The fiasco isn’t the mayor’s fault — she was fresh out of college when Jazzland was being hatched — and we hope she succeeds in finding a way to use the land that benefits the people of eastern New Orleans.
The plan in the 1990s was to build a massive amusement park that would lure people from along the Gulf Coast. At the time, the memory of the failed 1984 World’s Fair was fresh, but political leaders ignored the fundamental lesson of that blunder: That New Orleans’ ability to lure drive-in tourists, like families, is limited because if you draw a 200-mile circle around the city, half of the area is in the Gulf. So while the city is a great place for families to visit, poorly reasoned capital investments are risky.
The fair drew about half of the expected attendance, but a decade later that failure did not seem to deter politicians eager to throw away money on Jazzland.
Another sign of trouble was that private investors were not rushing to put their cash behind the amusement park.
In the end, taxpayers gave the park $10 million in the form of a grant from the state and lent it $25 million in the form of two loans awarded by the city. The bank, by contrast, pitched in $30 million.
Jim Brandt, then president of the Public Affairs Research Council, said at the time that it was unusual to have more public funding than private. This is economic development done wrong, with the taxpayers — state and local — being the lenders of first resort.
The park opened in 2000 and drew 1.1 million visitors, enough to meet its obligations. But the next year, attendance dropped by half.
In 2002 it filed for bankruptcy and was taken over by Six Flags, with the city chipping in still more tax breaks to make the deal work.
It closed for good after Hurricane Katrina washed over the city.
The people of Louisiana and New Orleans, and the citizens of New Orleans East, deserved better. There may be a use for the site, but this time the city and state should look to private investors to make a project work. The taxpayers have been stiffed enough.