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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LT&C Talking Business: How Mike Sherman became the go-to guy on controversial land-use deals

If there is a complex or controversial real estate development in the New Orleans area, chances are Mike Sherman is in the middle of it.

The 44-year-old attorney’s firm, Sherman Strategies, has developed a reputation over the past decade for taking on the kind of big deals that generate interest and headlines. Among his more high-profile projects are the purchase of the former Avondale Shipyards site by T. Parker Host, the stalled redevelopment of Plaza Tower and a retail complex proposed for a strip of batture land Uptown next to The Fly.

It’s not what Sherman set out to do when he came to New Orleans from his native New Jersey as a college freshman. But he grew to love the city during his four years at Tulane University and then as a postgraduate fellow in then-Mayor Marc Morial’s administration, where he learned the value of making the right contacts and cultivating relationships. After getting a law degree from Georgetown Law, he came back and hung out his shingle.

Along the way, Sherman spent three years as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s executive counsel and director of governmental relations. The experience further honed his appreciation for how local government works. In this week’s Talking Business, Sherman discusses what he learned from Landrieu, how to bring opposing sides together and how he has positioned Sherman Strategies as the go-to firm for getting deals done. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it about New Orleans that made you want to be here? Growing up in the northeast, I did not know a place like New Orleans, with its own music, its own tradition, its own people, could exist, and I deferred going to Georgetown to stay here and do the Morial Fellowship. That program changed my life because it gave me purpose, so the first day I stepped onto the Georgetown campus, I knew what I wanted to do, and I selected my course work with intentionality.

You ended up back at City Hall during the Landrieu administration. What did you learn from that? Mayor Landrieu was transformational for the city, and the ascendancy of the city during his eight-year tenure was probably unparalleled. Crime was down. Population was going up. We were the nation’s laboratory for innovation and education reform and Mayor Landrieu capitalized on a lot of that. He would bring these resources to the city. I probably didn’t recognize it being in the throes of it, but in hindsight, I learned so much.

How did working under him help you learn how to make things happen? It takes putting people together with a common goal in mind to figure out how to get a deal done. When I was in the Mayor’s Office, there were 162 boards and commissions we interacted with. To govern, the mayor had to find commonality of purpose with every one of them, even if he did not control or agree with them.

That sounds good in theory but how does it work in practice? I taught a political science course to undergraduates at Tulane for several years that bridged theory and practice. Every semester, I would ask the students to tell me how a bill becomes a law and we used Jefferson Parish as the jurisdiction. The smartest kid in the class would always give me the wrong answer — the "School House Rock" version of passing a bill. The correct answer was, you schedule a meeting with John Alario, who was the single most powerful elected official in the history of the state at the time. In every project, the first step is to identify third-party validators and stakeholders who need to be engaged. If you’re starting the neighborhood engagement process when the letter goes in the mail about a zoning hearing, you’re too late.

The process of identifying validators and stakeholders and bringing people together was a big deal for Landrieu. He would not open a public swimming pool until he spoke to third-party validators in the community. I think the private sector analogy to that is finding a commonality of interests. So when we are putting together developers, investors, property owners and seeking approvals from government officials, we seek to find a mutually beneficial goal and if there is not a good storyline to a deal it’s probably not going to get done.

But a lot of the deals you do are controversial and do not have good storylines. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over deals very regularly, and we definitely try to balance the number of controversial deals at any one moment. We regularly have to flip the script. So, starting with a hostile environment and finding a beneficial solution is the secret to a deal.

Give me an example. The Jesuit High School (pedestrian) bridge across Banks Street. It was very controversial and uncovered historical divides — underlying issues — between the neighborhood and the school. To flip the script, Jesuit had to make some commitment to its neighbors. For some, that was about being able to jog or play on Jesuit’s field when it wasn't in use. For others, it was about a more thoughtful pickup and drop-off policy. Or Jesuit stepping up to clean out the drains and maintain the street. That is how we got the bridge built. That is not unique.

You are typically on the side of the developer, not the neighborhood. As much as a community member will look at me and say, "You’re just trying to sell the developer’s project," in the privacy of attorney-client privilege, we are advocating for the community and telling the developers what modifications they can make so the project is more palatable to the community.

You are doing more business in Washington, D.C., these days and elsewhere. Are things different here than elsewhere? It is different. Our community’s level of engagement on land use is more intense than anywhere else. I am a deep believer in preservation but am probably more progressive than traditional preservationists. It’s not just about preserving the structure but bringing them into the future with adaptive reuse to meet modern needs. So, we’re a higher barrier-to-entry market and it’s a little harder to do business here, but we have a whole more to protect here than suburban America. It is harder to do business here, but it should be.


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