DALLAS - A legal dispute over a riverside parcel of land in downtown Baton Rouge should not deter voters from approving bonds that would finance a large tourist attraction planned for the site, East Baton Rouge Parish officials said Monday.
The parish is asking for a $900.8 million bond package, which includes $225 million for a nature-themed tourist attraction to be known as Alive. It will be run by the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates several venues in New Orleans, including the zoo and aquarium.
Alive is to be built on land that the parish said is owned by the state of Louisiana, but which has been crossed by tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad Co. since the 1880s. A state district judge said in 2004 that Louisiana owned the land, but issued an injunction halting plans for a proposed park because he determined the railroad had valid right-of-way claims.
Walter Monsour, special assistant to Mayor-President Melvin "Kip" Holden, said questions about who controls the 16-acre DeSoto Park site along the Mississippi River will not be resolved before the bond election on Nov. 14.
Monsour said the railroad is concerned it could be liable for incidents on the property, and wants to be sure the liability is transferred to the state. That will not be problem, he said.
He said officials knew there was no signed agreement between the state and the railroad before the bond package was unveiled, but thought that the matter had been settled during earlier negotiations between the state and the railroad.
"We still had every confidence that the state owned the property and that only the issue of responsibility of liability needs to be resolved," Monsour said. "We feel confident that the DeSoto Park issues, both liability and ownership, will go away very, very quickly. We have a lot of confidence in that."
Mark Drennen, who served as commissioner of administration under former Gov. Mike Foster, said an agreement with the railroad had been reached shortly before Foster left office in 2004, but Foster's term expired before the railroad company signed the document.
"Let's not get too hung up on who owns the land," Drennen said at Monday's news briefing. "I know it is something that the railroad sincerely wants to resolve."
The Alive attraction would include exhibits and rides explaining and exploring the Mississippi River. An economic study of the project said tax revenue generated by the $225 million project would by 2016 exceed the required debt service on its portion of the bond package.
The 30-year bonds would be supported by an additional 0.5% sales tax and an increase in the property tax rate of 9.9 mills. Revenue from the taxes is estimated at $71.5 million a year.
In addition to the Alive project, bond proceeds would provide $178.3 million for drainage efforts in the parish, $135 million for a new parish prison, $92.5 million for a public safety complex, and $141.2 million for expansions and additions to the downtown convention center,
The parish's sales tax bonds have underlying ratings of A2 from Moody's Investors Service, and A-plus from Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings.