Scott Hutcheson from the Mayor's Office of Cultural Economy plans to make navigating City Hall red tape easier for businesspeople.
"Can you do what you want to do where you want to do it?" According to Scott Hutcheson, Cultural Economy Advisor to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, that's the question. Recent controversies involving The Circle Bar and Siberia have caused some to think the Mayor has declared war on live music, but Hutcheson doesn't see it that way. "What you saw happen was not against musicians or the music. It was a business who was not in compliance with the licenses they had. The impact happened to be on musicians. This isn't about valuing or not valuing music. It's about a business owner satisfying his obligations as a business owner."
In the case of The Circle Bar, city officials helped owner Dave Clements get his paperwork in order so that he could once again have live music in slightly more than a week. People in Councilperson Kristin Gisleson-Palmer's office are similarly working with the owners of Siberia to help them work through the zoning maze they ran into. To help avoid similar situtions in the future, the Mayor's Office of Cultural Economy will roll out "Permits and Licenses for Cultural Businesses: A Basic Guide" this fall, ideally next month. It's a step-by-step guide to the process of opening a business, particularly with regards to zoning, licenses and permits, and in its draft form, it boils the process down to 10 pages starting with "Zoning 101." The remaining 23 pages lay out the legalese summarized in the guide.
"This is a tool," Hutcheson says. "It doesn't change the law, but it lets people come in knowing your first question should be about zoning, your second question should be about your occupational pieces, and walk them through that and connect them to the people who have those answers."
Clearly, City Hall's historic reputation as a bureaucratic tangle is a sensitive point, and the guide is only part of the effort to clarify the process. Zoning Administrator Edward Horan recognizes that the zoning map on the city's website has its shortcomings. Interested parties can't search by address, but instead click on a series of map coordinates to download a corresponding pdf. Finding zoning for a specific address requires downloading a series of pdfs to hunt "Battleship"-style for the actual target location.
"I've been working with the GIS - the web-based mapping - to get a more public-friendly zoning interface," Horan says. "We're not there yet, but we're going to get there."
Many problems that business owners face arise from changes that come about to address financial concerns. Collector of Revenue Romy Samuel believes restauranteurs, for example, "probably really want to open a bona fide restaurant but it evolves into something else. We want to make sure you're compliant." To that end, she suggests that people opening businesses be as upfront as possible not only about planned uses but possible uses. "You have to tell us what you'd like to do. That's what we operate on. You can't leave out that you want to do live entertainment, even if it's a thought. Let us know because that's the only thing we can operate off of."
In conversation, Hutcheson echoes a theme Landreu sounds frequently: balance. It's clearly the view of this administration that its role is that of facilitator; it gets the various interests to the table to talk. It's up to the parties to reach agreements. "Government as a whole works to be responsive, but it is responsive to the whole constituency," he says. "Our philosophy is to take that 40,000-foot view of the landscape and see what can we do as a government to create an environment where arts and culture can flourish. Sometimes that bumps up against a business practice and we have to work through that."
One of the challenges, Hutcheson says, is dealing with the law as written. The existing sound ordinance was written in 1956, but since it hasn't been re-writen, street musicians fall under it, and while he agrees that live music occupies a special place in New Orleans, efforts to clarify their place in the French Quarter have to come through a revision of the sound ordinance. He acknowledges that there are meaningful differences between types of sound, but says, "It's not a music ordinance; it's a sound ordinance. We didn't put them there; they were in there."
So far, the working group assigned to the task of proposing revisions to the sound ordinance has addressed loudspeakers, but Hutcheson recognizes that what's at stake is more than just the volume of canned zydeco blaring out of T-shirt shops and dance music thumping on Bourbon Street at night.
"The purpose of that working group and the purpose of this office [is] to start looking at equity, and not just musicians playing on the street. It's social aid and pleasure clubs, it's Mardi Gras Indians," he says. "It's our indiginous culture that's going to happen whether there's a law around it or not. I think the Mayor made it really clear when this came up some time ago when he said we have to balance the value of a living neighborhood, cultural origination, [and] a visitor destination. What's so great about New Orleans is that it's a living cultural experience. It does not stop. You don't cage it. My office's role and certainly the Mayor's philosophy is not to put a cage around culture but to establish a stronger platform on which it can sit. But, we have to work with the tools that we have and change them as we move along. That's a governmental process. That's a long process. We are the government. We are a process because people have to live with it for a long time. The sound ordinance that exists now was written in 1956 when New Orleans was a different place and the French Quarter was a different place.
"By its nature, New Orleans is a city of celebrations of joie de vivre. We wouldn't want to make it not what it is. Our goal is recognizing that government is not the purveyor of taste. It's not the purveyor of what's good, what's not good; where you should be, where you shouldn't be to create. Our job is to make sure that there's a balance and that the laws recognize that. We don't approach it as, 'It's better if it only happens here.' or 'It should never happen here.' And if some government took that stance - I don't think this administration's going to take that stance - New Orleans by its nature for almost 300 years now has created its own identity and it would continue to create that identity. That's the beauty of New Orleans. It transcends an ordinance; it transcends a government."