With new LSU arena, public engagement is necessary

There is wide agreement that the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the historic home to LSU basketball, is overdue for an upgrade.

But we are troubled that, thus far, the plans to replace the on-campus arena with a state-of-the-art, 13,000-seat venue have proceeded largely out of the public's view.

The process is being led by the Tiger Athletic Foundation, or TAF, which is a private entity that raises money for Tiger Athletics. TAF has narrowed possible developers for the project from six to two. Those two have until June 30 to submit proposals.

None of the potential project developers has been named.

When reporter Andrea Gallo submitted a public records request to LSU for documents related to the plan, she was denied because the records she sought were "within the custody and control of TAF."

That LSU has no copies of a plan to build on its campus strains credulity. And the idea that the public has no right to know the details of a major project at the state's flagship university is outrageous.

Under the proposal, LSU would likely lease the land for the arena to TAF, which would in turn lease it to the developer. The developer would build and own the arena, which LSU would be allowed use 85-90 times per year for sports and other events.

Charles Landry, an attorney who is helping TAF with the project, said that public input at this point would be premature because the process is still in its early stages.

The benefit of using a public-private partnership, according to LSU officials, is that taxpayers will not be on the hook for the new construction, which is expected to cost north of $350 million.

There will, however, be benefits to the developer, namely the use of the land and perhaps a portion of a 2% additional sales tax that could be levied at the arena because it lies within a specially created economic development district created by the Legislature last year.

The East Baton Rouge Metro Council has blessed the project, despite its potential to cost the city-parish money. By a wide margin, the council has agreed to limit events at the Raising Cane's River Center in order not to compete with the proposed new arena, which a consultant hired by the city said could cause the River Center to "run at a deficit" that would be borne by taxpayers.

At some point, there will be opportunities for public comment: Any final deal must go before the LSU Board of Supervisors. And the Metro Council will get a chance to approve an agreement with the developer.

But as New Orleans lawyer Henry "Tut" Kinney, noted, "LSU is as public as it gets." There simply is no good reason for a deal this big to be done behind closed doors.

-- The Advocate. March 24, 2024.

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