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It's High Noon for Hightower

It’s Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower versus his (numerous) critics today, as he and the city go in front of the state Bond Commission to gets its stamp of approval on $40 million of bonding, without restriction, to allow the city to finance the building of a hotel next to its burgeoning convention center.

His problem is the project’s critics include almost all of the Shreveport legislative delegation. What might give them a little extra weight is that the estimated cost of the Hightower Hotel is actually $52 million, and Hightower is counting on $12 from the state free and clear. Actually, there’s still some ambiguity about this amount, as it is subject to the state attorney general’s review that state capital outlay monies can be used for this purpose – something requested by some of these legislators.

In addition, most of these legislators have expressed publicly that they believed a public vote ought to be taken on the matter. This echoed sentiments of three of the seven city councilors (all Republicans, while the four Democrats voted to give Democrat Hightower the authority to petition the Commission without such a detour).

There also exists the matter of a study of the matter requested by the Commission, in a highly unusual move, assigned to researchers at Louisiana Tech. To this date, no definitive study of the viability of the hotel has been performed as Hightower has based his case on two marketing studies.

Add into the mix the financing authority of the bonds, the Louisiana Community Development Authority, is under legal investigation, the law firm hired by Hightower to advise on the project also may fall under a legal microscope, ambiguity over the role of whether the city or a Hightower-stacked Hotel Authority would really have responsibility over the hotel, and a lawsuit filed by, among others, local private hoteliers arguing this use of funds demonstrates the city falsely represented to the public that a hotel would be developed and constructed by a private developer, as part of a bond election in 1999, in which voters approved funding for the city's $100 million convention center that did not include any amount for development and construction of a hotel.

In short, legislative opponents of the move could argue to Commissioners (the majority of whom are legislators themselves) that the state ought to have some security for its $12 million commitment and that a public vote would ease concerns over the shadowy way Hightower has operated in this matter. Of course, Hightower can argue that the city’s legislature, representing the people, even if by a narrow margin, consented to this.

Perhaps the most important variable to this will be whether and how much weight state Democrat Sen. Lydia Jackson will throw around in opposition. She and Hightower are engaged in a battle for political control of Shreveport, or at least for the Democrat Party’s influence in it. In the most recent rounds of local elections, Jackson’s political machine emerged victorious over Hightower’s or most any other’s preferred candidates for safe Democrat seats.

Jackson also was instrumental in scuttling Hightower’s plans to fund the hotel through a Tax Increment Financing district which would have eased the process for him. Both how much more control over the political environment she can consolidate in doing this and the degree of her own personal misgivings about the project will determine how much of an effort she will put into lobbying the Commission.

Most likely, the Commission will grant the bonding request – it seldom does not when a mayor with statutory backing asks. It is highly unlikely to turn down the request, period. But there’s a chance that it could turn it down but indicate that it would be much more receptive to a future request that included an affirmative public vote. Given the result of The Times (Shreveport) October survey which showed 76 percent of city residents in opposition to a city-financed hotel, in essence that probably would scuttle the idea.

That means that not only is a huge financial decision for Shreveport in the balance today, but also Hightower’s political credibility and influence.

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