In a deal that will open up the last stretch of working port space in New Orleans' historic center to public access, city and port officials have agreed to an elaborate swap that would turn over the city-owned Public Belt Railroad to the port in exchange for two wharves at the downriver end of the French Quarter.
The blockbuster deal, which was announced Wednesday by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration, will give the city control of the last bit of working riverfront between the Central Business District and Bywater, thus opening up uninterrupted access for the public to a 3-mile stretch of the riverfront in the heart of the city.
Port officials are working with "hospitality partners" to find about $15 million to convert the Gov. Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves into public park space, City Hall said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
Some public access to the space is expected by next year.
The bulk of the money is expected to be contributed by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which brings in nearly $60 million a year from state-approved hotel taxes, a sales tax on food and drinks sold throughout the city and other assessments.
The two wharves lie between Crescent Park, the $30 million, 1.4-mile linear riverfront park in Bywater and Marigny that was completed in 2015, and the Moonwalk, the stretch of riverfront near Jackson Square that Landrieu's father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, helped open to public access in the 1970s.
The mayor called the swap a "win-win-win for all involved," saying that New Orleanians will benefit from a stronger port as well as the opening up of the city's "special waterfront."
The grand bargain marks an end to Landrieu's controversial push to find a private company to take over the Public Belt, which manages 26 miles of track that connect six major rail lines serving the port and industrial facilities.
Earlier this year, five firms expressed an interest in taking over the city-owned railroad in a deal that could have netted the city as much as $55 million upfront and another $76 million over a 40-year term.
The Dock Board has scheduled a special meeting for Friday morning, and the Public Belt Railroad's board is slated to meet Monday to "consider the framework" of the swap, the release said.
The Advocate on May 24 first reported discussions were taking place on the proposed swap, citing sources familiar with the talks.
At the Dock Board's May 25 meeting, Brandy Christian, the port's CEO, said she was involved in ongoing discussions involving "multiple scenarios, and that does include the future of the New Orleans Public Belt, which ... was created for the Port of New Orleans and has been a big concern, not only to our operations but to all of our shippers."
Wednesday's announcement suggests that officials have cleared — at least in principle — what was viewed as a major hurdle to getting a deal done. The wharves are now leased to the Jensen Companies, a logistics and transportation firm, which has 12 years remaining on a 15-year lease.
Jensen's operations will be shifted "to a location that recognizes and supports their business needs and is suited for their projected long-term growth," the release from Landrieu's office said.
CEO Jack Jensen Jr. did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. But in the city's news release, he was quoted as saying he was "pleased to be able to work with our public partners" on an arrangement that should benefit the port, the railroad and New Orleanians.
"Our family is confident that this plan will increase New Orleans' competitive edge in international trade and logistics globally," Jensen said.
For nearly two years, the Landrieu administration had explored the possibility of leasing the railroad to a private firm as a means of generating cash for the city.
But talk of privatizing the railroad ignited concern among port officials and the railroad's clients, who feared a private firm would be more focused on driving up revenue than keeping down costs. The takeover of the railroad by the port will presumably alleviate those concerns.
The mayor's office predicted the swap will "stimulate economic growth of the port and local industries by aligning the Public Belt Railroad and its assets" under the port's umbrella.
Discussions over the future of the railroad began after Thomas Coleman, the former CEO of International-Matex Tank Terminals, announced an interest in buying it. (Coleman is the father of Dathel Georges, who with her husband, John Georges, owns The Advocate.)
Before exploring a lease of the railroad, Landrieu had urged the Public Belt's board to consider selling it, seeing it as a way for the city to realize a major infusion of cash. But that prospect also drew vocal opposition.
After dropping the idea of a sale last year, the city began moving ahead with plans for a public-private partnership. Five firms responded to a bid solicitation in March.
Some local economic development officials have speculated that the port could try filling the void left by the loss of the two French Quarter wharves by acquiring the site of the former Avondale shipyard, the West Bank facility that was once Louisiana's largest employer.
As part of the port's master planning process, officials have studied what role the Avondale site might play in the port's growth plans for the next decade.
The site, which includes nearly 200 acres and more than 7,900 feet of riverfront access, offers potential maritime users a key advantage: deepwater access.
In late 2011, defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp. shocked the region when it announced plans to shutter Avondale and consolidate its shipbuilding business in Mississippi. The company later spun off its shipbuilding division into Huntington Ingalls Industries.
Huntington Ingalls has enlisted the commercial real estate services firm Colliers International Group to try to sell the property. In recent months, the asking price for Avondale was dropped to $95 million, Jerry Bologna, president and CEO of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission, said last month.
But Wednesday's announcement by the city does not mention whether Avondale factors into the port's long-term plans.