NEW ORLEANS -- George Solomon Jr. is the “Businessman A” identified in the federal government’s indictment of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Eyewitness News has confirmed.
The identity of the eastern New Orleans theater owner who allegedly paid $23,500 to provide free private jet travel and limo services for Nagin on a 2006 trip to New York City was first reported by The Times-Picayune on Sunday.
According to the Nagin indictment, Businessman A provided Nagin with the trip as a thank-you for tax and loan waivers the mayor provided.
Solomon’s attorney, Phil Wittmann, said he could not say “one way or the other” if his client is Businessman A.
But our story goes far deeper than just identifying Businessman A. We have uncovered another alleged quid-pro-quo that involves Businessman A’s theater property in eastern New Orleans.
Solomon owns the graffiti-laced Grand Theatre at Lake Forest Plaza with bankers Ashton Ryan and Alden McDonald. The abandoned stadium-seating theater has been an eyesore since Katrina, even though it got a $5 million federal loan backed by the city, tax penalties waived and a $17 million loan from Lowe’s Home Improvement, which has a store next door.
As we reported exclusively in January, Ryan sent Nagin a letter in 2007 asking the mayor for more corporate welfare -- and reminding him about the promises Nagin had made to Solomon and McDonald to help the theater project.
On Friday, we confronted Ryan, who along with Solomon and McDonald, had evaded our questions for over a month. We asked him if he was Businessman A.
“I’m not going to answer anything about that, I’m sorry,” said Ryan, the chief executive of First NBC Bank.
But Ryan did talk about his rotting Grand Theatre project and the huge vacant property around it, the Lake Forest Plaza, which he also owns.
“The theater didn’t work as a stadium theater even when there were 100,000 people in New Orleans East and people were coming from St. Bernard and Slidell,” Ryan said. “Now both of those have their own theaters so you’re not going to get crossovers, so it needs to be reinvented as something different. But until the Plaza gets really rolling, I don’t think you can do it yet.”
Of course, it was Solomon’s company Southern Theatres that opened the Slidell cinema. And getting the Plaza rolling is Ryan’s responsibility because he owns it with Nagin confidant Cesar Burgos.
Our sources say that Nagin agreed to push another tax benefit for the Plaza, a Tax Increment Financing District to dedicate a portion of state and city sales taxes from that area to building a new shopping center on the Plaza property. In exchange, Nagin wanted Burgos to get a piece of the deal.
With Nagin’s help and Burgos leading the way as the project developer, the TIF was approved by the City Council in 2009. But it was blasted as a bad, self-serving deal by community groups and the Bureau of Governmental Research, and it never went into effect.
Burgos did not respond to our requests for comment today. The TIF passed the City Council 6-1, with the lone dissenter being the district councilwoman for that area, Cynthia Willard-Lewis. She spoke to Eyewitness News today.
“The TIF was appropriate for bringing about economic development in distressed communities,” she said. “It was ideal for the devastated New Orleans East area. But this particular TIF plan had no specifics in it. Each time I met with Mr. Ryan and Mr. Burgos, I could not get a letter of agreement on Wal-Mart, no letters of intent on additional anchor stores they said they were wooing.”
Now, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is taking action to call the Grand Theatre’s mortgage loan. The city backed the loan to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Grand owes $6 million on the $5 million mortgage.
But Ryan said he still wants Landrieu to revive the TIF. Ryan said his group has met requirements laid out to get the TIF operational.
“Hopefully we can get the TIF back on track and get the East back to develop, because that’s a linchpin of developing the East, bringing the Plaza back,” Ryan said.