Playland NOLA offers another view of what the former amusement park could be
Fourteen years after Hurricane Katrina, one of its most visible casualties, the 227-acre amusement park which has previously operated as both Jazzland and Six Flags theme parks, still sits abandoned. Residents are wondering, “Why hasn’t the site been redeveloped?”
In 2000 the park opened as Jazzland Theme Park, but by 2002, the debt was too great and they filed for bankruptcy. Six Flags then obtained possession of the site from the bankruptcy court. Six Flags had their own financial problems and eventually also filed for bankruptcy in 2009 which enabled them to cancel their lease with the City. The theme park did not reopen after Hurricane Katrina and the Industrial Development Board of the City of New Orleans (IDB) eventually took control of the site. During the 14 years that the park has sat idle, there were failed proposals to build a Nickelodeon theme park in 2009, an outlet mall in 2013, and numerous other plans to rebuild another amusement park — plans that the IDB has shown little interest in, due to lack of proof of funding and developers’ wherewithal.
When Mayor LaToya Cantrell took office she also took on the task of finding a developer for the property, and the IDB entered into an agreement with the City to allow a year to complete that mission. A year later there is still no developer and the Mayor has expressed interest in demolishing the site, based on recommendations in a report which was introduced in June of this year by the City’s New Orleans Business Alliance. That report suggested reenvisioning the site as a resource for learning about climate change, resiliency and water issues, while providing family-friendly activities incorporating local gems like the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.
The Six Flags site in New Orleans East is still controlled by the IDB. From the description on the organization’s web site, the IDB is a non-profit public corporation tasked with stimulating economic development and improving the business climate in the city, using tools such as tax-exempt bonds and other incentives to spur growth. The directors of the IDB are composed of residents and voters of New Orleans who are appointed by the City Council, with one appointment by the Mayor, to serve overlapping six-year terms on a completely voluntary, uncompensated basis. Even with these responsibilities, the role of the IDB is not to be a real estate/asset manager, and they lack the budget to keep the site safe and secure.
The IDB schedules monthly meetings on the 2nd Tuesday of the month at 12:30 pm; however, last month’s meeting scheduled for July 9, 2019 was canceled. In fact, according to the organization’s web site, over half of its meetings for 2018 were canceled. The next scheduled meeting of the Board is Tuesday, August 13, 2019, at 1340 Poydras Street, in the 21st Floor Conference Room.
State of the Site
Though the park site has sat largely vacant for the past 14 years, it is occasionally used by film companies for movies and videos, generating enough funds for minimal upkeep. Unfortunately, some of the activity that takes place there is unauthorized — and dangerous.
Today, the site is overgrown. Rides, buildings and infrastructure are severely damaged, and mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, wild boars and other wildlife are common. According to one potential developer, “It really is at a point were the site is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—too costly to fix and too costly to tear down.”
When Six Flags operated the park, they added some used rides, upgraded some landscaping, and added more cartoon character theming; and even though Six Flags considered the park a total loss, they might have come out further ahead than it appeared at the time. There is very little left of the thrill rides that previously existed. Before it cut ties, Six Flags removed many of the rides that had value and removed items that were custom made for the site. They removed items such as garbage cans, street lights and picnic tables that could have been used later. Rides and other property that were damaged by Katrina were also vandalized, and intruders collected copper and aluminum to sell as scrap metal.
Other items removed by Six Flags were the cars used on the Mega Zeph roller coaster, of which the replacement value is expected to be close to $1 million. From the main water ride they took the boats, and from the children’s Ferris Wheel they took all the gondolas/ride chairs. From the merry go round they took the horses. After basically taking everything of value from the site, the company was partially reimbursed after filing a multi-million dollar insurance claim.
The site is essentially up for grabs. Even the movie studios damaged some of the rides by dismantling them to use as stage sets, or demolishing buildings to make way for filming.
There are several challenges hampering the rebuilding of the site. There are many perceptions to overcome, including the beliefs that the property, as is, is a “white elephant”, requiring too much work to guarantee enough revenue to support itself; that New Orleans East has a higher crime rate than the rest of the City; and the perception that the East is too far from the Central Business District (CBD) to draw upon the city’s tourists. Additionally, the cost to remediate the site, whether from complete demolition or repair is prohibitively high. The age-old theory of other parishes or even other parts of the city steering development away from the East seem unlikely in this case, as few other areas in the vicinity have the space for such an endeavor.
Funding for development is another barrier. It has been estimated that it would take $70 million to $100 million for a major redevelopment of the site, which would most likely have to be borrowed. In addition to money, developers would also need time — it could take a year just to study the remaining property, decide what can be salvaged and then produce a plan. Putting that plan in process could take up to three years. Then there is the question of whether Metro New Orleans could support such development.
To address some of those concerns, potential developers feel that they can produce a plan that will bring in the desired revenue. And based on its size, New Orleans East has a lower rate of crime than many of the more popular parts of the city. Regarding the perception about distance from the CBD, there are enough other assets like the Louisiana Nature Center, Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou Sauvage and a revitalized Lincoln Beach that the East could become a complete tourism destination in itself. Additionally, the transportation to the area could be marketed as an adventure on its own (picture specially-designed and painted “nature-themed” buses shuttling passengers between the CBD, the East, and other locales). A site such as this would depend, not only on Metro New Orleans, but could draw tourists from surrounding states. It should be noted that during the height of its operation, Six Flags New Orleans attracted impressive numbers of visitors.
Why weren’t past plans selected?
After considering the challenges, it is certainly understandable that rebuilding this site is no easy task. But were none of the developers equipped to overcome them? At least one seemed to have the money on hand. They all had a plan, and/or experience in developing such venues, and some even attempted to form coalitions, essentially pooling their skills and resources.
One way to deal with the funding issue, according to developer Lance Houpt, is to be a little more flexible in how the site is redeveloped. Other developers, he feels, have had trouble raising the estimated required $70 million to $100 million because they have a very specific vision that hasn’t been tested in the marketplace, and an unrealistic expectation of projected revenue to cover the resulting debt associated with development. Houpt says this is what derailed the park the last two times. Both Alpha Smart Parks/Jazzland and Six Flags had debt levels which led both owners to file for bankruptcy.
If development of the site has failed to materialize it’s not because of lack of interest. A group of developers, including Danny Rogers of Southern Star Amusements, Tonya Pope of TPC-NOLA, Lance Houpt of Playland NOLA and Frank Scurlock of Knarf Holdings, have consistently been present at the IDB meetings, none more so than Tonya Pope.
After fielding proposals from developers for the past several years, the City released the results of its own study about the best use of the site. Other proposals included a broad concept of restoring the site as it was before, complete with many of the previous rides, and adding more, in a permanent setting.
Other proposals considered starting small and growing the site as attendance and revenue increases. This “less is more” approach, its champion suggests, can be implemented faster and with less funding, which is already available. It also offers protections in that the park rides would be leased and could therefore be easily removed if necessary. Developers could also collaborate on development, building concessions and hiring local entrepreneurs.
Lance Houpt, a New York developer, submitted plans for the Big Easy Amusement Park and his current Playland NOLA (https://playlandnola.com). He has previously partnered with Danny Rogers on his concept of Dreamlanding. Houpt has been quietly studying the site for years, taking note of what can be saved, and where assets are located. He started researching the site in the spring of 2016, collecting thousands of images, videos and articles about Jazzland and Six Flags New Orleans. He also attended industry trade shows and visited other parks and carnivals around the country.
His current plan proposes to re-launch the former Jazzland amusement park with over 25 rides and attractions. His website describes a site “Where Bourbon Street, The Bayou, South Beach Deco and Retro Amusement Park All Meet For A Day Of Family Fun.” His relatively simple concept of using the site as an upscale state fair/traveling amusement park could shave years and dollars off of providing a functioning site.
Because he is not local to the area, Houpt reached out to the three developers who showed interest in the park — Tonya Pope, Frank Scurlock, and Danny Rogers to see if they could collaborate on their visions for the park. Houpt (whose background is construction, engineering, architecture and interior design) and Rogers (whose background is in amusement rides, games and attractions) felt that between the two of them they had the necessary skill sets to come up with a workable plan. Although they completed a business plan for their joint Dreamlanding proposal, they were not able to obtain the necessary funding after shopping it around to multiple entities, even ones with whom Houpt had strong relationships based on his past work with them. “The funding just isn’t out there for this park as is,” a seemingly harbinger of doom for any larger family entertainment center, water park, or amusement/themed park coming to New Orleans.
Undeterred by the lack of investors, Houpt went back to the drawing board and considered how the site could more quickly and economically be put into commerce. Thinking beyond the initial carnival/amusement park and music venue, he added the concept of a wedding and events venue using a gazebo overlooking a lake at the park.
Houpt feels that the site’s highest and best use is as an entertainment venue since its design and construction only lends itself for this use. “To repurpose the site for a different use would require everything be torn down — rides, buildings and the midway,” he said. “There is plenty of vacant land in the area, where, unlike with this site, one wouldn’t have to spend all the money up front for the demolition, before starting to build something.” The original builders said that it was cheaper and faster to elevate the midway above the low lying swamp underneath rather than spending many months and dollars trucking in material to raise the area.
An argument against demolishing the site is that it could cost $10 million to tear down plus another $2 million in site prep work that would essentially leave a low lying swamp of just over 227 acres. And once torn down, the chances of investing additional tens of millions of dollars to create a family entertainment attraction would be slim.
Houpt says that, given the opportunity, once he reopens the park, utilizing his own funds and after he has continuously re-invested the proceeds to upgrade and rebuild it, the park could then be taken to the next level. In a reasonably short time attendance would be high enough to attract a national/branded company similar to Six Flags. Alternatively, it could remain an independent park developing its own local and regional following.
In his research Houpt has found interesting examples of how parks/entertainment centers survive in less populated markets that cater to the local populations as well as have a regional draw. One way is to have an affordable ticket price. Two other independent parks located in non major metropolitan areas offer camping and RV hook-ups. To entice families to come to the park as their summer family vacation they offer packages, including camping, gate admission and a food plan, allowing average families to vacation and have a good idea of what their costs will be in advance. One of these parks does not charge for parking, has no admission charge, allows families to bring in coolers and provides shaded pavilions lined with picnic tables where families can set up for gatherings and events.
“I don’t see a downside for the city by letting me have a reasonably short term try at making a go of the park,” said Houpt. “If I fail the City can tear it down then, in fact, the demolition would then be cheaper for the City as I will have already torn down most of the rides and some of the buildings.”
Instead of a venue that operates on a daily basis, Houpt envisions a site, where in the summer, a traveling amusement park could open as fairgrounds and possibly reopen at other popular times times of the year offering rides, food and festive decorations for the holidays or other special occasions.
In the off season, the site could operate as a quasi public park for residents to walk the grounds, take in the lakes with their fountains, have picnics on the weekends, and hold birthday parties (possibly with a limited number of rides operating), corporate events, weddings, small venue music and theatrical productions, craft shops, food franchisees or pop-ups.
This could also open opportunities for other developers to take part, by providing inflatable “bouncy houses”, wax museum exhibits, open food service kiosks, purchasing and running new or refurbished rides or providing concerts (like maybe the smooth jazz concert I’ve been wishing for, for the last 10 years).
Houpt says his solution doesn’t have to be long term initially, but could be a way of rescuing the site, providing opportunity for citizens and local entrepreneurs, and employment for local youth. And, he feels, his plan positions the developers to raise financing towards the purchase of the site, should the City become interested in a long term agreement, by making it possible for the site to be visited by potential investors and lenders. That plan includes dewatering the site, removing dilapidated buildings and rides, removing dangerous wildlife, repairing salvageable buildings and infrastructure, and opening a business at the site.
Houpt plans to relocate his fabric and wallpaper business to New Orleans, utilizing his four digital wallpaper printers — the same machines that make signage, banners and graphics for truck wrapping, among other signage — and digital artists to produce site signage, including wrapping buildings and barricades with graphics until they can be reopened.
Reflecting on the site Houpt said, “This site has no chance of being rescued by anyone else. It is too far gone. It cannot be repurposed for another use — the dollar numbers and location just won’t work.”
Houpt says that while some plans may be bigger and more exciting to the residents of the East than his, the ability to acquire 100% financing is too much of an obstacle, and the City most likely has grown weary of hearing the same thing over and over. For those holding out for “the big project” or the investor with deep pockets, Houpt says, “If it didn’t happen years ago when the site’s buildings, rides and infrastructure were in good condition, it certainly isn’t going to happen now.”
On the other hand, Houpt says with a smaller solution, the City really doesn’t have a down side. There is only a short term lease to prove to the City that it can be viable. “As a former boy scout,” Houpt says, “one of the maxims we lived by was always leave the campsite better than when we found it, so in the very slim case we are not successful, then the city gets the site back vastly improved, without cost.”
For those who are naysayers, dreamers or who are not grounded about the site’s past prospects, Houpt asks, “Wasn’t 13 years long enough?”
The next scheduled meeting of the IDB is Tuesday, August 13, 2019, at 1340 Poydras Street, 21st Floor Conference Room.