A big brouhaha popped up last weekend at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street, when reps from the city’s revenue department shut down the NOLA Designer Costume Market, organized for many years by “Flea Queen,” costume designer, artist, flea market expert, author, and sometime OffBeat writer Cree McCree.
The market used to be held at Café Brasil, but moved to the Blue Nile after the closing of Brasil.
The shutdown outraged the local artistic community, who had been participating in the market for many years, as well as many others who expressed the opinion that the city should have better things to do than shut down a community marketplace. After all, there’s a lot of crime out there, and busting innocent artists, who’ve been doing this community market thing for years, seemed pretty callous, particularly for an administration whose leader made his bones on supporting the “cultural economy.”
Turns out that the revenue rep was mistaken in thinking that the Blue Nile was putting on the event and making money from it. Not so, says Jesse Paige, Blue Nile General Manager. “We donated the space to the market. It was something we thought we’d do for the community.” But the event didn’t have the proper permit and licenses it needed to operate. Who knew?
It turns out that City Hall’s processes of obtaining permits for special events didn’t necessarily apply in the case. As it was explained to me, if an artist sells products to the public, they must purchase a $50 permit (good for an entire year). Artists are required to pay city sales taxes on purchases, but if they sell within a “cultural district” (Frenchmen Street is a cultural district) they don’t have to pay the city sales tax.
But the event itself did need a permit and license to operate.
Jesse sent me an email that described the permitting process:
“In order to do this properly you need a Special Event Promoter Form. Promoters Fees include an Occupational License $250.00; Mayoralty Permit $500.00; and a Police Retirement Fee $0.25, for a total of $750.25. An Approved Revenue Form from Safety and Permits is required which is $190. So it appears that the grand total of permits and processing to do a simple community event, even if you are selling any arts and crafts or clothing, is $940.25. And more: A $10,000 Performance Bond is required if three or more vendors are participating.”
But here’s the twist: if the event is organized by a non-profit group (I’m assuming it’s a 501 (c)(3) organization), applications, permits and licenses are required, but the fees are waived. So apparently all would have been copacetic if McCree’s market had either been a non-profit or had a non-profit as a “fiscal agent” for the event.
The big problems here are that we have a struggling city that is desperate to create revenue, but few people at City Hall really understand the processes of what permits, applications and fees are needed, and the people from the Department of Revenue really don’t understand what’s legal and what isn’t.
Jesse made an astute observation: the creative community has rebuilt the city on their own backs and through their own initiative. For god-knows-how-many years, the city has taken a hands-off, look-the-other-way policy on events such as these. And now it can’t afford to do that anymore. Asking artists for a $50 annual fee isn’t unreasonable, in my opinion, as it allows them to sell their wares anywhere in the city. (From what I understand a few of the vendors at the NOLA market did have their permits, but the event as a whole did not). Let me go on record here by saying that requiring musicians to buy a permit isn’t the same thing, and I’d have to be persuaded otherwise.
Many citizens who put on these events aren’t aware of what’s required to do this sort of thing. Of course, it’s up to them to find out what they need to do to keep it legal. But finding out all the details and spending hours at City Hall to do so isn’t exactly conducive to people wanting to have a “legal” event. I’ve heard this complaint for so many years on the problems with permitting, safety and licensing. I think it behooves the city to make a concerted effort to make all permitting and licensing a lot easier and less byzantine—especially when it involves artistic endeavors. Why isn’t the process (and option for payment) online? Isn’t there a booklet of some kind that has easy-to-understand instructions can be disseminated at the information desk at City Hall?
I understand this has been a priority of the new administration, but it needs to speed up the process up, explain forms and fees online in simple-to-understand language, and create an easier-to-understand process to avoid this sort of thing happening in the future.