Plans for a high-tech driving range near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center are being “parked,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday.
“That’s not something we’re going to pursue right now,” he said in an interview. “We may or may not come back to it later.”
The governor’s statement came eight days after Convention Center officials disclosed plans to allow Topgolf, a Dallas-based company, to build a driving range and entertainment complex on riverfront land owned by the state authority.
The nine-acre site abuts Tchoupitoulas and Euterpe streets on the upriver side of the Crescent City Connection and is part of a 47-acre plot that Convention Center officials want to develop, including with a 1,200-room hotel.
The Topgolf proposal brought strong reactions from a variety of quarters, including some members of the Convention Center's governing authority and City Councilman Jay H. Banks, who criticized the center's leadership for doing a deal without an open bid process that appeared to put in jeopardy a rival Drive Shack golf-and-entertainment complex less than three miles away.
Drive Shack's head of real estate development, Ted Heilbron, also sent a letter of protest to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, saying his firm had been assured previously that the Convention Center would hold a competitive bid process if it ever decided to have a driving range on its land.
Developer Joe Jaeger, on whose land the Drive Shack complex was to be located, was so incensed that he halted demolition of the old Times-Picayune building on the site and said he would let Drive Shack out of its lease.
"I am delighted that the hard work of Mayor Cantrell and Councilmember Banks to bring Drive Shack to the former site of the Times-Picayune has been validated," Jaeger said Tuesday after the statement from Edwards. "I am hopeful the news out of Baton Rouge is definitive enough to allow the Drive Shack project to proceed."
Edwards did not explain why the Convention Center is shelving the deal now but said, “We have got a lot of critical things going on at the Convention Center. That one appears to be problematic.”
"I think it's dead," Banks said of the Topgolf deal. "I do not see how that plan could be resurrected."
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The Convention Center is in the midst of a $1.1 billion capital improvement plan that aims to reverse a sharp decline in attendance at meetings at the facility. The plan includes a controversial 1,200-room Omni hotel at the Convention Center’s upriver end.
Jaeger had been part of the consortium slated to develop the hotel, but he withdrew from the project in protest at the Topgolf deal. He said he was particularly angered that the Convention Center management seemed to be acting like a private developer, even though they hadn't yet developed a fully thought-out master plan for developing the entire riverfront property.
"It is also my hope that with light being shined on the back-room deals, no-bid leases, and other antics of the Convention Center's general manager and certain board members, there will be a call for transparency and accountability in the future at this facility, a facility that is the cornerstone of the hospitality industry in New Orleans and will define us in the years to come," Jaeger said.
He praised Edwards for backing "the free market principle that the public sector should be supporting, not competing with the private sector."
Jaeger is a prominent New Orleans hotel owner who also owns half of Mardi Gras World, which abuts the Convention Center, and is a co-owner of the former Market Street power plant, immediately upriver from the area owned by the state agency.
Asked about his role in "parking" the Topgolf project, Edwards noted that he appoints a majority of the Convention Center board members and has discussed the Topgolf plan with several of them.
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Melvin Rodrigue, chairman of the Convention Center's governing body, has been the driving force behind the Topgolf project, which would have been the first concrete progress toward developing the proposed "entertainment district" on the upriver acres controlled by the Convention Center.
The developers of the proposed Omni hotel, led by Dallas-based Matthews Southwest, have been putting pressure on Convention Center leaders to show momentum on their master plan.
Rodrigue declined to comment on Edwards' statement Tuesday.
Staff writer Anthony McAuley contributed to this article.