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Monday, Aug. 28, 2017

Pie in the Sky?

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Mayor Tyler’s ambitious plan for downtown

It was a pretty hefty package Mayor Ollie Tyler sprung on the city council and the public last week where she is proposing a $150 million mixed-use development for downtown Shreveport. Anchoring the development would be a 3, 200-seat arena to house the G League team of the New Orleans Pelicans of the National Basketball Association.

According to the mayor’s plan, the city would spend $30 million in public funds on the arena, and private investors would take care of the rest of the development. She got the usual suspects to sign on in support, including the Committee of 100 (who are they, anyway?), the African- American Chamber of Commerce, the North Louisiana Economic Partnership, the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, and the Shreveport- Bossier Sports Commission. No surprises there. She also listed the Downtown Development Authority, but Liz Swaine, executive director, said the DDA had not yet signed on in support of the project.

An old saying comes to mind: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." Shreveport has an established history of not supporting sports franchises. When it comes to basketball, we can remember the Shreveport Crawdads in 1994, the Shreveport Storm in 1995, and the Shreveport-Bossier Mavericks in 2013 through 2015. The Mavericks had a 92-game winning streak and won American Basketball Association titles, but still folded for lack of fan support. The Independence Bowl is struggling to remain alive and relevant.

The list goes on and on in baseball, football and hockey. Right now, the city has a baseball stadium rotting at Fairgrounds Field, inhabited by bats – not the kind used in baseball. It was a fine stadium when in use by the Shreveport Captains from 2008 to 2011. But, alas, that franchise folded as well, and the city allowed the stadium to fall into disrepair. Why wasn’t it kept up for use by college and high school baseball teams?

The fact is Shreveport is not a sports town. In 2013, the Sports Business Journal ranked Shreveport-Bossier City as No. 228 of 229 minor league markets. Only Johnstown, Pa., was ranked lower. And nothing has happened to improve its ranking since then. The city council last week passed a non-binding resolution in support of the project. The vote was 5-2 with Councilmen Willie Bradford and James Flurry voting no. Councilman Jerry Bowman, who had expressed some reservations about the plan, decided to support the non-binding resolution. The council will have further votes on the plan in September.

Another saying comes to mind: "Nip it.

Nip it in the bud." That’s Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show.” The council should have nipped this plan in the bud and put an end to it. Since the council meeting, opposition has become a hot issue on social media. But more importantly comes opposition from the Shreveport Police Officer’s Association (SPOA). Michael Carter, president of SPOA, did not mince words. "In an astonishing vote of 5-2, the Shreveport City Council proved, in my opinion, that public safety is not their priority. With shootings almost daily, we watch our city leaders ponder dreams of a G League arena," Carter said.

Carter also noted that the SPOA has diligently pursued a pay raise proposal for 11 years. The pay proposal was vetoed under former Mayor Cedric Glover in 2008, voted down by the city council in 2012, and deliberately ignored since February 2016 by the Tyler administration. "Thirty million dollars could drastically change the Shreveport Police Department into a progressive law enforcement agency," Carter said. He added, "SPOA adamantly holds Mayor Ollie Tyler, CAO Brian Crawford and City Attorney Will Bradford Jr. accountable for ignoring the safety needs of Shreveport. They have left no room for doubt. They are focused on issues that do not make Shreveport a better place to work and live."

To be sure, the city has some other pressing needs, such as a crumbling infrastructure system, streets that need repair and violent crime, to name a few. The Tyler administration is receiving some criticism for lack of transparency on her $150 million plan. There was little public input, and the plan was basically presented to the city council on the day it was to be voted upon.

The NBA Developmental League started in 2001 and has 22 teams. In the 2017-2018 season, the league will welcome three new teams into the fold and change its name to the Gatorade or G League. New Orleans is one of the new teams. The Pelicans have narrowed the field from 11 contenders to two – Shreveport and Pensacola, Fla. A decision is expected in September.

These comments basically deal with the arena. There are many other questions concerning this development that need to be answered. For example, will there be a public vote on the project? If the city can come up with $30 million for this project, why not for streets and public safety?

Some of the land is apparently in private hands. Have these landowners been included in the process? The city council is scheduled to vote on Sept. 12. The vote should be delayed until these questions are answered or the project killed.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.

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