Putting On Events Should Be Easy…

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.

Cree McCree working on some of her costumes. Credit: Uptown Messenger

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.

  • Creemccree

    Good piece, Jan. You really dealt with all the nuances, and I totally agree with your bottom line:

    “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’d be happy to serve on some kind of task force that included the artists themselves in the mix.

  • I own a handnade craft business in Baton Rouge and have been wanting to sell my wares in NOLA to help, in my own small way, bring some money to my beloved native city. However, after spending time on the phone with a gentlemen from the city revenue department, I decided against it. Sad….

  • Colbito

    Many legit businesses on Frenchmen have been quietly asking for greater police presence and enforcement of rules in general of late. City Hall people with clipboards have been up and down the street during the last week or so checking licenses, permits, Manager and TAM cards. I think the shutdown of the costume sale was a byproduct of this and not the target….that being said it would be the understatement of the century to say that figuring out the byzantine laws and permitting processes of NOLA was easy, in fact it is obviously so complicated, convoluted and conflicted that even those tasked with enforcing don’t fully understand….

  • Creemccree

    “The Great Blue Nile Costume Bust of 2011” appears to have a happy ending.

    I got a call today from Scott Hutcheson, the mayor’s adviser for the cultural economy, who apologized for Sunday’s shutdown, attributing it to a comedy of errors and misinformation by the various agencies involved. He said the city is committed to supporting grassroots markets like the Blue Nile Costume Bazaar and the Piety Street Market. To that end, his office is working to streamline the permitting process so that everyone understands it, and to make it accessible (and affordable) for all types of events.

    The ultimate goal is to set up a single online portal for all elements of special events permits. This would serve as a one-stop clearinghouse instead of requiring applicants to navigate through multiple agencies. That could take a few weeks, but it’s already in motion. The Blue Nile shutdown put the overhaul on the front-burner, so I think reform is actually on the way. That’s good news for everyone involved.

    Piety Street Market is already moving forward with our own permitting process, which Scott assured me can be in place by our next scheduled date of Sunday, March 20. I’ll be posting more details about that market soon. Meanwhile, enjoy Mardi Gras!

  • theartrat

    “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.”

    the only thing i was able to find out about artists licenses through the department of revenue is for Jackson Square at $180/yr (and a $20 dollar fee for notarizing application). i have been searching for months trying to figure out what is required to legally sell my stuff and can’t find any information. who did you speak to about this information? perhaps by contacting them i can get the info i need.

  • Scruffypup7

    I own a gallery on Royal Street. When I applied for my business license in December 2010, many other business owners (including my book keeper) insisted that I go ahead and open my doors before I got the license because they said it would take many months to get the license. Against my better judgment, I went ahead and opened for business. My book keeper instructed me to pay my sales tax on time even thought I didn’t have the license, so that’s what I did. Sure enough, weeks and weeks went by with no word from City Hall. So I called…….and I called…….and I called……..no answer. I would call totally unrelated departments to try and get a number someone would answer. I got two additional numbers but no answer at them either. I go down there (an ordeal in itself) and interact with the rudest people on Earth. Rude AND incompetent AND stupid. Great combination! They told me there was an open building permit on the building I was renting and it would have to be inspected. An inspector came out and said “I don’t understand why they sent me here. This building permit has been closed for years.” So…..with this knowledge I reapply for my business license. Weeks go by. Meanwhile I’m nervous as can be about doing business without a proper license. So again, I called…………and I called………and I called……..and I finally get this woman to answer the phone. Her hatred for me was blasting through the phone the moment she picked up. I guess answering the phone was beneath her. I was VERY polite to her and yet she had her voice raised the entire conversation. I told her the inspector said the building was approved and she screamed “I don’t care what he said, there is an open building permit!” Keep in mind this is several months after I applied. Another inspector was sent out. Same result. So, being too busy to continue going to City Hall, I paid my book keeper her normal hourly rate to go down to City Hall for me. She came back at the end of the day as frustrated as I was. She told me to just forget about the license and continue paying my sales tax. She said if we did that, we would get a renewal notice in the mail at the beginning of the next year and we’d go from there. Sure enough, we received a renewal notice (for the license we never received!) We paid it and last week our business license arrived in the mail! Only took 15 months to get it!

    As much as this city needs money, they should be hand delivering business licenses on silver platters along with a bottle of champagne! But instead they discourage people who truly want to do the right thing and pay the money to start a business. I love this city, but there are many things about it that make it an embarrassment to live here.