New Orleans is in the midst of a building boom, the scale of which has not been seen in many a decade and of a kind that most cities never see at all. The Crescent City has been building up, at least in part, for the Louisiana World Exposition, the 1984 World's Fair that runs through Nov. 11. No one, however, spends $3 billion on construction for a single six-month event, no matter how spectacular it is.
The city's government and business interests see the 11 million tourists which are expected to visit the fair and the $2.6 billion they're expected to spend not as a temporary benefit to commerce but as a catalyst for sustained development.
(Fair attendance, however, has averaged fewer than 35,000 a day since it opened May 12 - fewer than half of what was projected as necessary to break even. Officials are considering admission discounts and other moves to boost attendance and help concessionaires.)
The sudden burst of growth has been compared to that experienced by other Sunbelt metropolises such as Houston. But being a city that glories in its past, New Orleans's ambition is a bit different.
While its burgeoning counterparts are inclined to rip down what isn't new and replace it with what is, ''we don't,'' says David Jones of The Chamber/New Orleans & the River Region. ''New Orleans has always been conscious of its past and has tried to preserve it, because that's why people come to New Orleans - to get a taste of that European flavor that permeates the French Quarter as well as the Uptown area.''
That principle is at work even at the fairgrounds. The 82-acre site fronts on the Mississippi River in the warehouse district just west of the French Quarter and, were the fair in any other city, the old buildings there would probably have fallen before the wrecking ball.
New Orleans had a few such casualties, acknowledges Denise Lombard of the Louisiana World Exposition Inc. Not every single structure ever put up has historical significance or is in any shape to be saved. But most were renovated, including some that had been vacant for years.
When the fair ends, the warehouse owners will have shaped-up storage space, and the Rouse Company of Maryland, a major developer of shopping centers nationwide, will turn the rest of the grounds into a mall.
Renovation has been going on throughout the city, although private enterprise has lavished most of its attention and money on the French Quarter and the neighboring central business district. The federal government has also contributed to the general effort, most noticeably with $30 million to enlarge the airport and $500 million for the second span of the Greater New Orleans Bridge, crossing the Mississippi.
Among the new buildings are hotels indicating someone is thinking big. In 1983, for example, the Sheraton opened, with 1,200 rooms, and the Ramada, with 1 ,000 rooms, while the Hilton added 500 rooms to its existing 1,100, says Bill Langkopp, executive vice-president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel Motel Association.
Other major accommodations are the Iberville, Sugar House, Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, Intercontinental, Windsor Court, and Meridien, many of which cost more than $50 million to build. Their arrival has increased the city's first-class hotel space by 25 percent, to 25,000 rooms, in the past couple of years alone.
Before the developers are through with projects already under way, that number will reach 27,500, Mr. Langkopp says. If the number of rooms does that kind of growing, the number of visitors had better do the same. ''We hope so,'' says Mr. Langkopp, but he adds that one doesn't open a series of massive luxury hotels and then leave matters to chance.
''We're adding world-class hotels and with that come world-class marketing organizations,'' he says. ''We'll be able to experience marketing efforts in markets we've never dreamed of reaching.'' When a hotelkeeper advertises the house, he necessarily advertises the city it's in. The logical extension of that premise is that the organizations behind many of these hotels will give New Orleans a global reach.
Fitting in with the accommodations is a new convention center with 750,000 square feet of exhibition space, meeting rooms, and a ballroom. It is a quantum leap from what was available before, says Beverly Gianna of the Greater New Orleans Tourist Commission, who notes that the Rivergate has 137,000 square feet and the Superdome, 169,000. More than 200 conventions have already been booked into the new center, she adds, most of which could not have fit into either of its predecessors.
To become even more of a tourist attraction seems to be asking a lot, but New Orleans has just that in mind. Tourism brought $1.8 billion in 1981 and $1.9 billion in 1982 to Orleans and Jefferson Parishes alone, says Ms. Gianna, and ''those were not our banner years.''
To widen its appeal, the city is trying to alter its image as a vacation spot primarily for adults, and the fair is an obvious opportunity to do just that.
''We're never going to be a Disneyland, let's face it,'' she says. But with riverboats and the Audubon Zoo, plus historic homes and streetcars, ''there's quite a bit that families can do in New Orleans - things that are entertaining and a good learning experience.''
A substantial part of the building boom is in office towers, such as the Energy Center, which cost $100 million; Place St. Charles, $125 million; and the Texaco Center, $80 million. New major medical construction totals $250 million. These involve higher risks than the other kinds of construction.
''We're going to end up with a surplus of office space over the next several years,'' acknowledge Ron Mertens, director of the New Orleans chamber's economic development council. It could take as long as four years to absorb the space, ''which is certainly more than we're used to but not out of line with the rest of the country. I would not consider it a drastically overbuilt situation.''