A historic deal that could create potentially the country's largest swath of uninterrupted public riverfront cleared a major hurdle Thursday, as officials at the two agencies involved — the Port of New Orleans and the Public Belt Railroad — formally approved the swap, which involves two port-owned wharves at the downriver end of the French Quarter and the city-owned railroad.
Additionally, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office disclosed plans to unveil "multiple riverfront redevelopment projects between Spanish Plaza and Crescent Park" during an announcement Friday morning.
"Not only will these landmark projects further stimulate economic growth and redevelop the city’s riverfront, but they will also provide contiguous public access from Spanish Plaza to Crescent Park," the mayor's office said Thursday.
The framework of the riverfront swap was announced in June after months of uncertainty over the fate of the Public Belt, which manages 26 miles of track connecting six major rail lines serving the port and industrial facilities.
In exchange for control of the railroad, the port will give the city the Gov. Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves — working wharves that have broken the long stretch of public access to the river that now includes Crescent Park in Bywater and Marigny and the Moonwalk and Woldenberg Riverfront Park in the French Quarter.
The port's board of commissioners on Thursday approved a resolution to authorize its president and CEO, Brandy Christian, to enter into a cooperative agreement with the city and the Public Belt's board in order to finalize the deal.
Port officials also moved forward with plans to establish a wholly owned nonprofit affiliate, called the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Corp., to operate the railroad as well as the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish, which the railroad also owns.
"The steps we took today were major milestones," Christian said after the board's vote. "We still have a couple of steps in the process, but this was a major piece in terms of moving it forward."
Later Thursday, the Public Belt Railroad Commission approved a measure to transfer the agency's assets to the new port-owned subsidiary.
When it was first announced, officials said the deal would give the city a chance to fill in a gap in public access to the riverfront and redevelop that space into a draw for tourists and residents that could help alleviate congestion in the section of the Quarter closer to Canal Street.
For nearly two years, Landrieu publicly discussed selling or leasing the railroad to a private firm as a means of generating cash for the city. Five firms expressed interest in taking it over in a deal that could have netted the city as much as $55 million upfront and another $76 million over 40 years.
However, port officials and railroad clients opposed the move, worried that a private operator would be more focused on increasing revenue than keeping costs down.
Under the terms of the agreement, the port and its new railroad affiliate will be operated by separate boards that share the same members.
To maintain the railroad's role as a neutral party, the port will prohibit railroad customers, including port tenants, from serving on its board. Existing policies restricting Class 1 railroad officials from serving on the board will be carried over.
With the port soon taking the reins, the current Public Belt Railroad Commission is expected to be dissolved next year. That led to some lighthearted speculation Thursday among the current board members that they were having their final meeting.
"I'm happy to be sitting where I'm sitting right now, and knowing that I won't be sitting here in January," the commission's president pro tempore, Lynes “Poco” Sloss, joked at the meeting.
But calling it "a great outcome," Sloss added: "I think this is a case where all parties are happy with what's happening."
The deal still must be approved by the City Council as well as the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees railroads. Neither step is expected to be a problem, officials say, and approvals are likely to be in hand by the end of the year.
Once it's official, Christian will become CEO of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Corp., while Doug Campbell, the Public Belt's current CEO, will serve as its general manager under Christian.
The port plans to recognize the union contracts of the workers that it's taking on from the railroad, officials said.
Landrieu is to be joined at Friday's announcement ceremony by numerous civic and business leaders, including Sloss and real estate developer Darryl Berger, a Dock Board member who also serves as chairman of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. Ron Forman, president of the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates Woldenberg Park, is also slated to attend.
A hint of what's to come may have been tucked away in a draft of the cooperative agreement that was released Thursday. In it, port officials say they will "support the creation of an economic development district that includes the New Orleans riverfront from Spanish Plaza to Crescent Park," a measure that would provide an economic lift for the city's benefit.