May 22, 2013
A bill allowing the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to embark on a significant expansion project on the New Orleans riverfront passed the Louisiana House on Wednesday, a day after it was stalled by a lack of support. The difference: work by Rep. Walt Leger, the sponsor of the bill, to convince his colleagues the measure would not require the state to spend any money on the projects.
Leger, D-New Orleans, described House Bill 516 as authorizing necessary upgrades to a "central part of one of the greatest industries the state has" and argued that visitors to the Convention Center would help drive tourism throughout the state.
"This simply allows us to remain competitive with our Convention Center," Leger said.
On Tuesday, the House voted in favor of the bill 43-36, leaving it 10 votes short of the 53 needed for passage. Wednesday's vote, by contrast, had 70 members in support and 20 opposed.
The bill now heads to Senate committees for debate.
Leger was questioned on both days about the effect the bill would have on state construction spending this year. On Wednesday, he noted that there is not currently any state money slated to go the projects that would be permitted under the bill. However, the Convention Center would be able to issue its own bonds, paid for by hotel-motel taxes it receives, to pay for the projects. Overall, the redevelopment is expected to cost at least $185 million, Leger said Wednesday.
The changes envisioned by Convention Center officials would come in several stages: infrastructure improvements on Convention Center Boulevard including the construction of a "people mover"; development of a riverfront "festival park" on existing wharves; a significant project on the upriver end of the Convention Center including new executive conference facilities, a privately developed hotel and a kitchen and restaurant facility.
The element of the plan that has caught much of the public's interest, however, is a proposal that would redevelop or demolish the vacant World Trade Center building. Three competing proposals for that site are being reviewed by the New Orleans Building Corp., a city agency:
- Gatehouse Capital Corp., a national real estate investment and development firm from Dallas, would redevelop the 33-story World Trade Center as a W Hotel and apartment building. The plan also would include the construction of a "Tricentennial Sky Wheel," a Ferris wheel, at Spanish Plaza and new civic spaces on the riverfront.
- The Tricentennial Consortium, a coalition of tourism leaders and organizations including the convention center, would demolish the World Trade Center and replace it with a major new piece of public art that the designers said would be on a par with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. An initial design, which architects stressed was only one of many possible ideas, would replace the building with a 400-foot tower with an observation deck at the top. That plan also calls for creation of public spaces around the site and possibly the creation of a National Wetlands Center.
- John H. Burch of Clifton, Va., has proposed converting most of the office tower into a hotel and resort, with four floors used as office spaces and additional space used for residential units. Burch said he wants to reserve about four floors of the building for foreign consulates. This plan also calls for creating a "World Plaza" in the building's first three floors and projecting a film about the history and people of New Orleans onto an outdoor screen.