Convention Center contributes $30 million to effort to spruce up tourism district

March 29 2012 | Latest News

"We're using the Super Bowl as an opportunity to fix a ton of dissatisfiers as quickly as possible..."

March 28, 2012

By Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center-New Orleans will contribute up to $30 million to an effort to refurbish the French Quarter and a "hospitality zone" in advance of next year's Super Bowl, the center's board voted Wednesday. The money will be used to repair and improve streets, sidewalks, signage and lighting before the big game, which will be played in the city Feb. 3, 2013.

The investment will come as part of a cooperative endeavor agreement between the convention center and the city of New Orleans, expected to be signed later this week. The convention center board voted, at Wednesday's meeting, to allow Chairman Melvin Rodrigue to enter into the agreement and allocate the designated funds.

"We're using the Super Bowl as an opportunity to fix a ton of dissatisfiers as quickly as possible," Rodrigue said. "The idea is to create a new standard, a higher standard."

The convention center's move appears to dovetail with efforts at the state and local levels.

Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans has introduced a pair of bills proposing the creation of a formal hospitality zone in New Orleans that would be governed by a board and funded, possibly, through taxes on hotels and food and beverage purveyors operating inside the zone. The resulting hospitality district would promote tourism in the hospitality zone, provide enhanced public safety and sanitation, provide signage and lighting and provide for property renewal and repair.

Meanwhile, Mayor Landrieu's administration is working to develop a "public-private partnership" to improve the infrastructure, security, sanitation, and marketing in the tourism zone, spokesman Ryan Berni said last week.

Hospitality industry leaders have become increasingly focused on designing ways to improve and maintain the French Quarter and surrounding areas in advance of the Super Bowl and, ultimately, in the build-up to the city's tricentennial celebration in 2018, which the industry has set as a deadline for reaching a goal of 13 million visitors annually. Last year, 8.75 million people visited New Orleans.

The convention center's measure did not draw unanimous support. Nine of the ten board members in attendance voted in favor of moving forward with the cooperative endeavor agreement. But Commissioner Edward Markle said it was "not in the best interest of the Convention Center to donate $30 million to the city."

Markle said the money could be better spent improving the riverfront facility, which is undergoing a major renovation, and studying possible uses for a vacant lot that had been intended as the fourth phase of the Convention Center.

"I think we can use that money more efficiently," Markle said. "The money could have been spent to increase the asset value of the building."

Commissioner Fred Sawyers, however, said he believed the wisest investment for the convention center is to spend money on the city's best known asset.

"The Convention Center is a huge demand generator for the city, but we have to keep in perspective that the crown jewel is the French Quarter," said Sawyers, who also is general manager of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel and chairman of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Also at Wednesday's meeting, the convention center board approved a $664,854 increase in its construction contract with Citadel Builders, which is renovating Hall A of the meeting hall.

The increase brings the total cost of the project to $37.7 million and extends construction by 14 days to Jan. 19, 2013.

Citadel, the "apparent low bidder" in a group of nine, will receive $36.5 million to renovate Hall A and do other updates to older areas of the center.

Citadel is updating a nearly three-decades-old portion of the meeting hall that first was used as the Great Hall of the 1984 World's Fair and housed its first convention in January 1985. It has not been renovated since. Construction also calls for making the center's nondescript main entrance at Convention Center Boulevard and Julia Street more inviting.