NEW ORLEANS — There’s jazz and jambalaya. Then there’s football and Final Fours.
On the heels of the NFL’s decision to award New Orleans the 2013 Super Bowl, tourism and economic development officials credited the sports industry — as much as the city’s world-renowned music and fine dining — with leading the economic and psychological recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
”This city, right now, is probably the single-best example of the power of sports as a corporate enterprise to actually go outside the boundaries of its own sector,” said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.
”Sports, in our recovery, may have been the single key element, because the highest-profile national events have either come here or committed here” since the storm hit in August 2005, Perry continued. ”They’ve re-established us as a pre-eminent special-events city.”
Perry estimated that approximately $2 billion in spending in the metro area will have been generated directly by sporting events by the time the 2013 Super Bowl — with its $350 million contribution to the local economy — has been played. That span will have included seven Sugar Bowls, two BCS national championship football games, an NBA All-Star Game and an NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.
What may go down as one of the more important moments in the history of this nearly 300-year-old city was when state officials approved an unprecedented stadium rehabilitation plan for the Louisiana Superdome, which was heavily damaged during Katrina.
The NFL helped spur the decision by asking whether the dome could be fixed in time to host the Saints during the 2006 season.
Doug Thornton, a senior vice president for SMG, the company that manages the state-owned stadium, got together with contractors and consultants, and decided it was possible to renovate the dome — at least enough to safely host football — in little more than eight months. A sellout crowd of more than 70,000 saw the Saints take the field against Atlanta for the dome’s emotionally charged, nationally televised reopening on Monday night, Sept. 25, 2006.
”To have lost the Superdome would have been a death blow,” Perry said.
The nationally televised Bayou Classic between Grambling and Southern, played in Houston in 2005, also returned to the dome, as did the New Orleans Bowl (which had to be played in Lafayette in 2005) and the Sugar Bowl (played one year in Atlanta). Tulane’s football team, which played every 2005 home game outside New Orleans, returned to the dome as well.
The BCS national championship game came to the Superdome the following year. Meanwhile, the Hornets returned full time to the New Orleans Arena next door, and brought the 2008 NBA All-Star game with them.
Since then, the NCAA has awarded the 2012 men’s basketball Final Four to New Orleans.
Each time one of those events take place in New Orleans, broadcasts are filled with shots of music in the French Quarter or chefs cooking in the city’s best-known restaurants.
Officials at the convention and visitor’s bureau say they see a spike in calls from planners of events, business meetings and conventions after each nationally televised sporting event in New Orleans.
The 2013 Super Bowl in particular, Perry said, will demonstrate the extent of the city’s recovery to both event planners and tourists.
”Because it’s seen by a billion viewers in 250 countries, it brings the New Orleans brand across the planet in a way we could never purchase,” Perry said.
Reflecting a racial divide, many fear the city will abandon low-lying areas; others think it ought to. By Richard Fausset
May 31, 2009 Reporting from New Orleans — Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, it is the worry that will not fade, complicating the rebuilding of New Orleans and defining and reflecting this fragile city’s racial divisions.
Call it the fear of a shrunken city.
Immediately after the storm, many residents, often African Americans, worried that low-lying flood-ravaged neighborhoods would be left unbuilt and turned into wetlands. Though that possibility has diminished, one fear won’t dissipate: that those same areas may wither as a result of restrictive zoning changes or a waning commitment to rebuilding in certain parts of town.
It’s the issue that tugs at New Orleans resident R.C. Brock, 68, more than the threat of another flood, even with the rapid approach of hurricane season. Brock is building a replacement home on a Lower 9th Ward block where water once covered the rooftops.
“We ask the question all the time: ‘What are y’all doing for us in this neck of the woods?’ ” said Brock, whose new four-bedroom cottage is being erected in a battered landscape of empty lots and empty, flooded-out houses. “We can’t get streetlights down here. We got holes in the street.”
The sentiment is echoed across the city in neighborhoods that have yet to see the return of schools, parks and other government services. And though it is not felt solely by blacks, the issue has taken on a distinct racial dimension.
Since Katrina, whites have gained more political power here, helping elect the first white-majority City Council since 1985. Historically, many of the city’s white elite have lived in high-ground neighborhoods that were not badly flooded. And a recent poll shows that a majority of white voters do not support rebuilding some vulnerable areas.
The result, among many African Americans, has been a “justifiable paranoia” that parts of the city will be left to languish, said Mtumishi St. Julien, director of the Finance Authority of New Orleans and a resident of the battered New Orleans East area.
That paranoia, he said, stems from “a historical legacy of privilege, which seems to be heavily based on race.”
The fear has also complicated the fate of the city’s proposed master plan, the much-anticipated document that will guide the city’s post-storm redevelopment for the next two decades. In November, a citywide vote was required to give the plan the force of law.
The measure passed, but narrowly, after African Americans rallied in opposition. They argued that a draft of the plan had not been written yet — and feared that it might be used to sneak in backdoor limits on development that could slowly and subtly kill off struggling black neighborhoods.
“There are issues in terms of whether the shrinking city will take place by a declared policy, or an informal policy of neglect,” said Ron Nabonne, a local attorney and political consultant who helped lead opposition. “I have family who owns homes in these low-lying areas. It’s a very emotional issue.”
A draft of the master plan was released in March, which promised to address “the needs and aspirations of every resident in every corner of New Orleans.” However, some black leaders are supporting state legislation, approved by a Senate committee this month, that would allow residents to vote again on whether a final draft should be implemented.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat and African American who has announced his intention to run for mayor next year. He said the government never offered an equitable buyout program that would allow residents to move out of vulnerable neighborhoods, leaving many no choice but to move back.
“People were encouraged to come back, and people have done that,” he said. “You can’t now say that we’re not going to have city services in those areas.”
Maggie Merrill, the policy director for Mayor C. Ray Nagin, said the city has been committed to an equitable recovery plan. The problem, she said, is that the damage is so serious in those areas that it has taken longer to fix.
In the early stages of recovery, the idea of shrinking the city’s footprint was most prominently espoused by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, which was hired on to advise the citizen-led Bring New Orleans Back Commission appointed by Nagin. The proposal sparked outcries from displaced residents and their allies.
Dismantling neighborhoods, they argued, was a violation of human rights. Perhaps an attempt at ethnic cleansing. A former City Council president said the concept was tantamount to “not honoring the dead.”
Under this pressure, Nagin and the city government allowed Katrina’s exiles to return and more or less rebuild wherever they wished. Since then, New Orleans has grown to an estimated 336,000 residents — about three-quarters of the pre-storm count.
Badly damaged areas such as New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward have only been partly repopulated, though in almost every neighborhood, at least a few cars once more sit in driveways, and a few house lights shine at night.
Since 2000, the percentage of whites in the city has increased about 4%, to 30.7%. The percentage of blacks has fallen from 66.7% to 60.7%, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
The shrunken footprint concept has been largely abandoned by the city’s political class: No member of the City Council, black or white, publicly supports it. Clancy DuBos, political editor of the alternative weekly Gambit, noted that every council district has at least one neighborhood that could ostensibly be drawn out of a “smaller, safer” New Orleans map.
The acceptance of the pre-storm status quo was evident last month when the National Academy of Engineers released a report recommending the relocation of vulnerable neighborhoods. In some quarters, it was received as more of an annoyance than a dire warning.
“I’m not sure what it accomplishes, other than rehashing a debate that’s already been decided,” said Merrill, the mayoral policy director.
The report warned that vulnerable areas could never be fully protected by levees and flood walls. Rebuilding there, the scientists wrote, would position the city for “additional, Katrina-like disasters.”
But poll numbers released around the same time demonstrated that the issue was far from settled among everyday New Orleanians. The poll of voters by Tulane University and the nonprofit Democracy Corps found that 64% of white respondents agreed that “some areas of New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina should not be rebuilt as residential areas again.”
Of blacks polled, 74% disagreed with the statement.
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