On Fifth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Stone Pigman Takes Stock of Its Work Contributing to New Orleans Recovery/Rebuilding
Law firm’s latest initiative supports New Orleans College Prep Charter School with new uniforms and other improvements; long list of transactions and pro bono work helping city regain its footing; key projects in hospitality, economic development, housing, sports, culture, infrastructure and public works
“We know what it means, to miss New Orleans” – Louis Armstrong, by way of Louis Alter & Eddie Delange
NEW ORLEANS (August 9, 2010) – In the days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Crescent City, longtime New Orleans law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C. took out ads in regional and national media invoking the song made famous by Louis Armstrong.
Of course, the firm wasn’t simply being poetic. That’s because like most local businesses, Stone Pigman had to relocate after the floods, placing many of its attorneys at a satellite office in Baton Rouge.
But almost immediately after the waters began to recede, Stone Pigman was back in New Orleans, participating in major civic and commercial projects that put it in the midst of rebuilding efforts across the city. From the refurbishing of historic City Park to the rehabilitation of the iconic Saenger and Mahalia Jackson theaters, along with important transactions involving the New Orleans Saints and the Windsor Court and Royal Orleans Hotels, Stone Pigman has been active in advancing the city’s dramatic recovery.
Those efforts are continuing even as New Orleans readies to mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina’s fateful strike on August 29. In its latest initiative, the firm is renewing support for New Orleans College Prep, a public charter school opened in 2007 to provide Orleans Parish students a quality public education.
The law firm is purchasing uniforms for each of the school’s newly-enrolled 200 students later this month, and subsidizing renovations of its kitchen – some 95% of College Prep’s students are on a federal lunch program. Stone Pigman attorneys previously helped paint hallways and classrooms and hosted luncheons at the firm’s offices. Since ushering in its first class of 125 sixth graders in August 2007, College Prep has launched an elementary school and eventually plans to serve students from K through 12th grade.
“In our brief history, we’ve made great strides in creating a gap-closing, performance-driven public school for low-income students of Orleans Parish, who faced some of the greatest challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” said NOCP founder and director Ben Kleban. “We extend warm thanks to Stone Pigman for the tremendous support the firm has provided, not only financially but in volunteering talent and resources in improving our facility and furthering our mission. We congratulate the firm for contributing to our city’s renaissance on so many levels.”
Stone Pigman also contributed to the rebuilding of New Orleans City Park, the 1,300-acre parcel that is central to the city’s outdoor recreational life. Stone Pigman partner Paul Masinter served as park board president and head of the legal committee, where he was effectively on loan to the park and helped lead negotiations with FEMA and other government entities, along with private donors, that were vital to the park’s extensive rebuilding. And, for a public facility that had to lay off most of its staff after the hurricane, Mr. Masinter also became a welcome inspiration for other park volunteers.
“In addition to helping raise $83 million to fund renovations, Paul was in the park virtually every day, including weekend days, doing things like planting trees and even picking up garbage. You would have thought he was a member of our staff,” said Robert Becker, CEO of City Park. “It was a huge boost for us to have Paul come in and help run things after Katrina. City Park, with all its amenities, plays such a vital role for residents of New Orleans and surrounding communities. We had seven million visitors last year, and the park’s revival has been key to the recovery of the neighborhoods around it.”
Stone Pigman corporate attorneys Scott Whittaker and Rikki Bagatell have been involved in the renewal of the downtown performing arts district through projects devoted to the Mahalia Jackson and Saenger theaters. The firm crafted new operating agreements that helped enable the Mahalia Jackson theater to once again host performances, while Stone Pigman negotiated leasing and financing for the Saenger that will hopefully soon bring Broadway productions again to the city’s favorite theater.
“I cannot say enough positive things about how the firm’s attorneys have helped us,” said Cynthia Connick, executive director of the Canal Street Development Corporation, which is overseeing the theater projects. “Scott and Rikki are excellent lawyers, and they understand the public arena and how to protect the city’s and the corporation’s interests. In so many facets of our projects, they’ve gone above and beyond the call to make sure our needs are met. The Saenger, and the return of Broadway and other first-rate theater to New Orleans, is especially significant because it helps drive an economic revival by sparking confidence in investing in other nearby theaters that are now closed.”
Stone Pigman Management Committee chair Wayne Lee, said of the firm’s ongoing post-Hurricane Katrina commitments: “From those darkest days after the deluge, when the city was basically an inaccessible flood zone, and we first mobilized to reopen our offices, we looked to be active, integral contributors to the recovery process – whether at the individual grassroots level, through our pro bono work or through our business matters helping clients jump-start economic activity, tourism, entertainment, municipal services and cultural offerings.”
Mr. Lee has played his own pivotal role in the city’s comeback. He chaired the New Orleans Community Support Foundation which sustained an ambitious recovery planning process that combined private grant funds, professional consultants and grass roots participation from the communities and displaced citizenry. The fruit of that effort, The Unified New Orleans Plan, submitted to the city in early 2007, was a key element in securing $117 million in federal funds for infrastructure restoration.
“Five years out, it’s gratifying to take stock in what we’ve been able to help accomplish in bringing New Orleans back to health,” said Mr. Lee. “It’s especially instructive in light of the setback the region has been dealt most recently with the oil disaster in the Gulf. Despite unbelievable odds bearing down on us in 2005, our city has rebounded in ways that many surely thought impossible. For those of us who have been here throughout the process, it’s hard not to have a glass half-full perspective envisioning what we can achieve over the next five years.”
Here is a recap of some of the noteworthy recovery matters the firm has handled over the past five years:
- Zelia, an entity created by the family of Saints owner Tom Benson, purchased the New Orleans Centre mixed use project. The office tower, now known as Benson Tower, is being renovated to house state offices. The former mall is being redeveloped as part of a sports and entertainment district next to the Louisiana Superdome for Saints games and other events.
- In an important step to revitalize the city’s tourist industry, Stone Pigman represented local groups that purchased two legendary New Orleans hotels, returning them to local hands for the first time in decades. The French Quarter’s Royal Orleans Hotel is undergoing renovations while maintaining its staff and general manager, while the legendary Windsor Court Hotel will also be refurbished and improved. The firm was also counsel to the Canal Street Development Corporation in connection with a successful restructuring of the Chateau Sonesta Hotel, which it owns, allowing more than $850,000 in back rent to be paid by the hotel’s developer.
- On behalf of the Canal Street Development Corporation, the firm is involved in two theater projects that, once finished, will help return New Orleans to its rightful place as a capital of American performing arts. Stone Pigman is conducting legal and financial negotiations on behalf of the Saenger Theatre Renewal Project, and constructed operating and lease agreements that brought the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts back to life.
- Stone Pigman represented the owner of One Shell Square (one of the city’s largest office towers) in the 10-year renewal of its lease with Shell Oil Company post-Hurricane Katrina, reaffirming the company's commitment to New Orleans.
- Westway Group, a global bulk liquid terminal company with deep roots in New Orleans, goes public post-Hurricane Katrina and commits to keeping its company headquarters in New Orleans, boosting the city's business community. Stone Pigman is counsel to Westway Group.
Pro-Bono Matters and Public Works
- The firm provided free office space and legal assistance to an out-of-state law firm that teamed up with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to help low-income homeowners clear title and claim ownership to inherited property damaged by Katrina. With legal title established, homeowners could then apply for FEMA aid, recovery grants, insurance, and loans to rebuild.
- Real estate partner Susan Talley negotiated with Walgreens, on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, for a $1 per year sublease to permit a temporary church, market and welcome center to be housed in a closed Walgreens store in the Ninth Ward. Ms. Talley negotiated an option to buy for the diocese, which also offered limited day care at the site and has looked into partnering with a community medical clinic.
- Stone Pigman provided office space and legal support to lawyers from the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which came to New Orleans to study and make recommendations on improving the region’s criminal justice infrastructure. In 2009 Stone Pigman was honored for its support to the Vera Institute at the Institute’s fourth annual benefit.
- Stone Pigman litigator Phil Wittmann led the restructuring of the indigent defender board and reformed the public defender system in New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the reforms included vertical representation and leasing of new office space for staff and the public defenders, resulting in a more efficient criminal defense system for its clients.
- Stone Pigman attorneys defended the Louisiana SPCA in a suit brought by the owner of a commercial trailer who alleged the SPCA damaged his property during post-Hurricane Katrina animal rescue operations. The firm won the case on summary judgment. Stone Pigman attorneys were honored in 2008 for continuing pro bono legal services on behalf of the SPCA.
- The firm supports three-year-old charter school New Orleans College Prep by purchasing uniforms for its 200 incoming students and supporting renovation of its kitchen, which must support 180 students daily on the federal lunch program.
- Stone Pigman performed free legal work on behalf of the Lakeview Christian Center that enabled it to acquire 12 properties damaged by flooding from Hurricane Katrina, demolish them, and construct a new 50,000-square-foot, $12 million facility.
- The Pro Bono Project’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Event in December 2009 recognized Stone Pigman attorneys for their legal work on behalf of disadvantaged clients in New Orleans.
- Stone Pigman attorney Carmelite Bertaut, president-elect of the New Orleans Bar Association when Katrina hit, assumed the presidency when storm damage kept the president out of town. As president de facto and then president, Ms. Bertaut worked with the Bar’s staff and directors to help get the city’s courts and law firms functioning in the aftermath of the storm. Ms. Bertaut also worked closely with the U.S. Justice Dept. to reorganize parts of the city’s criminal justice system, efforts critical to the city’s rebuilding.
- Stone Pigman Management Committee chair Wayne Lee led the New Orleans Community Support Foundation as it solicited a broad base of input for The Unified New Orleans Plan, a restoration and rejuvenation plan that helped the city secure $117 million in federal funds for infrastructure repair.
- Real estate partner Michael Schneider served as President of the Lakewood Property Owners Association and, along with litigator Larry Orlansky, worked on blight elimination and restoration of one of New Orleans’ flooded neighborhoods. Although every home in the neighborhood flooded, approximately 92% of the neighborhood homes are now reoccupied.