Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Yenni’s Ineffective Leadership Proving Fatal To Esplanade Mall

In February of 1996, I moved to Louisiana. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the rampant political corruption and the allure of a seemingly never-ending supply of topics.

No, the political commentary came much, much later.

The reality is that I left sunny Tampa for the sugar cane fields of New Iberia because of a woman.

I know what you’re thinking…but we’re not going to go there now.

My reason for telling you this is to simply set up the backstory to this missive.

Sometime in 1997 or 1998 (I don’t recall the exact date), the woman in question was working for an Advertising Agency in Acadiana. A client of the agency was having a large piece printed by a Kenner printing company (which has since gone out of business). My girlfriend was asked to do a “press check” and check the quality of the first few that were printed before the whole job was printed.

Since it had been a couple of years since I was in New Orleans, and it was an overnight trip, I accompanied her.

Back then, I had been through Kenner but never really stopped. No reason to, honestly. And, if you would have told me then that I would be living in Kenner, I would have probably recommended that you be committed.

Anyway, while we were waiting for the printer, we visited The Esplanade.

It was really something.

Bustling shoppers, even on a work day. Not a vacant store front to be found. Unlike the Acadiana Mall, The Esplanade was 2 stories. It seemed huge.

I’m sure many Kennerites long for the vision that I described.

For the past several years, The Esplanade has been in a veritable freefall and, contrary to Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni’s rose-colored glasses, a detached movie theater (even with stadium seating) and the tax-free (at least to Kenner’s budget) Target aren’t turning The Esplanade around.

During last year’s Mayoral Campaign, I repeatedly pointed to the troubles at The Esplanade as an example of Yenni’s failed vision and his ineffective leadership.

How could the Mayor allow Kenner’s largest sales tax generator to wither away?

Yenni, as he is wont to do, continued to repeat one of his patented lies and deflect any responsibility for anything bad occuring in Kenner under his watch: “The mall is owned by a private business and city government can’t do anything about its problems.”

While I am at the forefront of the “small government” bandwagon, I thought Yenni was completely wrong about The Esplanade. Besides, if the only plan that you’ve come up with is giving away sales tax revenue to one of the largest retailers in the country, city government already has a significant stake in the fortunes of The Esplanade.

I believed then, and I continue to believe, that Kenner city government and the Mayor's Office could do a lot to help turnaround The Esplanade.

One of the biggest concerns that I heard and continue to hear from Kenner residents is that they don’t feel safe shopping at The Esplanade.

That can easily be fixed by locating a Kenner Police Department sub-station at the mall.

Perceptions quickly changed at Clearview Mall when a JPSO sub-station was located there and JPSO Deputies were extremely visible. The same action also helped at Oakwood Shopping Center.

I’m relatively certain that mall management would welcome an increased KPD presence at the mall, particularly during peak shopping periods.

While it’s true that city government can’t take over mall operations, the Mayor could actively recruit businesses to Kenner and spotlight The Esplanade. I made a list of stores that were located in other nearby malls like The Mall of Louisiana and didn’t have a presence in East Jefferson that could be targeted.

Who better than the Mayor to promote Kenner to national retailers looking to gain a foothold in Jefferson Parish?

Of course, Yenni would rather farm out Economic Development to JEDCO instead of taking on the task himself. JEDCO has assisted Lakeside Shopping Center with their expansion but has done little if anything for The Esplanade or Kenner, in my opinion.

There are other options for The Esplanade too that city government could assist with if Simon Properties, the mall’s owner, desired to remake The Esplanade.

If it’s true that malls are declining and there is little hope for The Esplanade to return to her former glory, why not repurpose a portion of the mall by recruiting a satellite campus of Delgado, UNO, Tulane or another college or university or charter a community college or trade school? That would generate thousands of students and the ensuing traffic would help expand The Esplanade’s food court, the theater and remaining mall shops, and nearby restaurants and other businesses.

Or you could repurpose a large, vacant area with an antiques mall or a collection of stores similar to Le Boulevard. This would allow local entrepreneurs to have access to sell their goods and take a stab at retailing without taking on the cost of mall rent and other expenses.

The City could also allocate some of its Hotel/Motel Tax  to marketing The Esplanade to shoppers in St. Charles and St. John Parishes who don’t want to fight the traffic and crowds at Lakeside. Kenner’s Hotel/Motel Tax is currently being shipped off to the Jefferson Convention & Visitor’s Bureau where Yenni’s political consultant receives his cut.

If Simon gets tired of fighting the battle to revive The Esplanade, perhaps it would consider selling the mall to local ownership. The city could assist in finding prospective buyers.

To be honest, Simon Properties is as responsible as anyone for the decline of The Esplanade. Simon has gone through at least 4 Mall Managers and Marketing Managers over the past few years.

The running joke is that The Esplanade is the mall where Simon sends its managers to die.

Maybe they are tired of The Esplanade. 

One can always hope, right?

These are just some rudimentary ways that Mayor Yenni and Kenner City Government could assist Simon Properties and The Esplanade.

The truth is that Yenni is completely detached from issues at The Esplanade.

Last year, when several stores announced they were leaving The Esplanade, Yenni was “blindsided”.

How can the Mayor of Kenner be “blindsided” by anything going on at the largest sales tax generator in the City?

Instead, Mayor Yenni has farmed out the city’s responsibility for The Esplanade (and, yes, I believe the City does have a responsibility and a role in The Esplanade’s future and its vitality) to a sub-committee of his hand-picked (and equally as ineffective as his own leadership and that of Simon Properties) Economic Development Committee.

Now, a new player has entered the arena and claimed the “The Esplanade is a priority”.

The new player is none other than another hand-picked committee by Yenni: The Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council.

At the last Kenner City Council meeting, 17-year-old Arjun Verma called The Esplanade “pitiful” and said it’s a place where “shoppers simply don’t feel safe.”

Did you hear that Mayor Yenni? You could fix that with a KPD sub-station. That is, if you wanted to fix a problem for Kenner residents.

Ben Myers on Nola.com wrote the following:

Verma said his group wants to work with city officials and mall management to revive the Esplanade, where management last year consolidated tenants on the first floor. The first step, Verma said, is to increase security.

Why hasn’t Yenni done that during the past 5 years that he’s been Mayor?

"Recently there have been issues of gangs loitering in the mall and harassing shoppers," Verma told the council. "For the mall to actually change it needs to become a people friendly place again."

I agree that The Esplanade needs to be "people friendly" but gangs? Sorry, I don't see The Esplanade being a hub of gang activity with the Kenner versions of the Crips and the Bloods knocking over Senior Citizens on their way to their cars.

Look, it’s admirable that a group of 16-17 year-olds can see there’s a problem at the mall and attempt to affect change, but how exactly are they going to make The Esplanade their priority?

Are they going to:

1). Hold a bake sale or try again to get a cabbage ball tournament off the ground to generate funds for a marketing campaign?

2). Pledge to spend more of their allowances at the mall?

3). Start a petition drive to get a new American Apparel store at The Esplanade?

How about none of the above?

Verma said the youth advisory council would attempt to work with the new manager, when one is installed. If conditions don't improve, however, Verma said the council had resolved to start a social media campaign to create "noise."

"The hope is that this noise would somehow reach their investors, so we would be going over the corporation into the people that actually own the company," Verma told the council.

"Social Media Terrorism" - sounds a little ominous, doesn't it? 

The Simon Property Group has assets in excess of $26 Billion – that’s right – Billion with a “B”. The Esplanade is a blip on their balance sheet so it would take a huge amount of “noise” to reach the investors of a publicly-held, multi-national real estate company.

Sorry Arjun, but I think some of my ideas are a tad better than "Social Media Noise." 

It’s a longshot but at least the kid is thinking, right? He’s clearly showing more leadership than the man who appointed him to The Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee. 

And, unlike Yenni and one of his strongest political allies, Councilwoman Maria DeFranchesch, Verma isn't promising to bring Kenner a Kohl's or other retailer as an election ploy.

Now, if young Mr. Verma can just get Kenner that American Apparel store, he’ll have my vote.

That is, if he stays around Kenner when he’s old enough to vote and run for office.