Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
For nearly a century, New Orleans has been the beneficiary of an unusual inheritance: income from mineral-rich marshlands donated by a philanthropist named Edward Wisner. The Wisner Donation has spread tens of millions of dollars to worthy non-profits, but since Mitch Landrieu became mayor, not one dime has been doled out to the community.
Since Landrieu took office, the grant program has been dormant, leaving more than $4 million unspent and a long list of organizations wondering why.
The Anthony Bean Community Theater is one grant recipient that has been forced to cancel programs because the Wisner money stopped flowing. The stage for the after-school program at Anthony Bean has been dark since January, when the theater's last Wisner grant -- $25,000 ran out. And like dozens of non-profits who receive these grants, Anthony Bean has not been able to apply for a new one.
'Well, one person's waiting on a person who's waiting on another person, who's waiting on a committee, who's waiting on a committee, who's waiting on that other person,' Anthony Bean said. 'I don't know except that I'm waiting. I call at least every other day and say, 'Look you heard any news yet?' We don't know. They're waiting on the mayor.'
Student-actor Tony Felix, 15, is one of hundreds who have shared in the wealth of the Edward Wisner through the theater.
'The effect it brought on my life is...this is my life,' Felix said. 'If the program goes away, I really don't have nothing else to do after school.'
Other past recipients include everything from the Louisiana Philharmonic to the New Orleans Opera Association, from the Children's Museum to the New Orleans Museum of Art, from the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to WRBH Radio for the Blind. The list also includes homeless shelters, health clinics and literacy programs. And, of course, the Anthony Bean Community Theater program.
'Of course I'm frustrated because my kids are not here,' Bean said. 'I heard that the monies are there. You're telling me the monies are there and they're just waiting on the mayor. I'm just wondering what's up. What's going on? Why hasn't the money been released to organizations such as this?'
The people running the trust have been asking the same questions. Wisner has occupied this office in City Hall for decades, but since the Landrieu administration took office, the Wisner people have been able to get very little response from the new mayor.
When Landrieu took office, the Wisner administrators presented the new administration with this informational packet. But the transition, which has gone smoothly for several generations of mayors, has mysteriously stalled this time.
After sending a representative to the first few Trust committee meetings, the city stopped attending. And Landrieu has not signed business documents, as required by the trust, holding up Wisner leases.
One other document drawn up and waiting for the mayor's signature is a proposed renewal of the donation to the city when the original 100-year bequeath expires in 2014.
Jim Burton, attorney for the Wisner Donation, said the mayor's inaction has started to have a detrimental effect on the business of managing the Wisner properties.
'We are going on nine months and the business of the committee and the Wisner Donation is going to start to be adversely affected,' Burton said.
As for why the city has not responded to numerous requests from Wisner administrators and other beneficiaries, Burton said he is baffled. He said the most immediate impact is being felt by the non-profits who were anticipating grants.
'Getting money out to the recipients of grants in the city is a concern,' Burton said. 'But that's a concern that is more directly controlled by the mayor's office and Wisner Trust's office in the mayor's office. Which they really do have control over. They need to get the processes in place and get that process flowing again.'
Months of emails obtained by Channel 4 through a public records request chronicle the stalemate. Recent topics in emails to and from Wisner administrators, city officials, and other beneficiaries include removing Wisner from its City Hall office and increasingly urgent requests for the city to return to the table.
For example, in a Sept. 16 email, one of the family heirs, Michael Peneguy, pleaded with the city to respond. His email is addressed to Landrieu's Executive Counsel Richard Cortizas and Ashleigh Gardere, who has been assigned by Landrieu to represent the city on the Wisner committee.
'This message may sound a little harsh,' Peneguy's email reads, 'but frustration is beginning to show its face because I haven't received a response that would even acknowledge that either of you have read the message below. It appears to me that absolutely no one in the City Administration even reads their email messages, much less responds to them.'
Cortizas said in a recent interview that a revamped grant process is in the works. He said the city is being very careful to make sure that any disbursement of grant money is done legally, fairly and wisely.
'We're not trying to reinvent the wheel,' Cortizas said, 'but we want to make sure that we're doing it correct and we're doing it in a lawful manner and we're doing it in a timely manner, and that we're being responsible.'
Cortizas added that the city should be ready to announce its plans for Wisner in the coming weeks.
For now, however, some past recipients of Wisner grants find themselves looking for alternatives or, like Anthony Bean Community Theater's after-school program, shutting down. 'We're wobbling, to be honest with you, on exactly how we're going to serve the community. Because we don't know what the city is going to do,' Bean said.
To see the Wisner Grants awarded in 2009 and 2010, click here.
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