Rebuild New Orleans with visitors in mind

With New Orleans finally pumped dry and citizens returning following the ravages of hurricane Katrina, this almost unimaginable, historic national disaster has given the city an unparalleled opportunity to remake itself as a safer and better place. There is no question New Orleans will recover and rise again despite the appalling destruction and the resulting political acrimony. Mardi Gras could even return by next February - smaller perhaps, but just as colorful.

With the right national leadership, what happens here over the next few years could jump-start other badly needed infrastructure rebuilding across the country and position New Orleans as a living laboratory for urban revitalization everywhere.

Today in the Crescent City most of the talk is about rebuilding. What is clearly needed, however, is a coherent and innovative vision for that rebuilding. It needs to emphasize the extraordinary culture, music, and food (some 3,000 or so restaurants) as well as the character and effervescence of a city and a people that are unique on the American landscape. At the same time, that vision also needs to consider the city's past weaknesses and eccentricities. The goal should not be to re-create the "Big Easy" as a replica of what it was before, but rebuild it for what it could have been and can be in the future.

One very significant challenge the rebuilders will face is that the city has lost much of its corporate base. Entergy remains the only Fortune 500 company now headquartered in New Orleans. The city is basically tourist-dependent - one of the nation's preeminent destinations for both leisure and business travelers. It should be re-created with tourism at, or near, the top of the agenda. Tourism is, in fact, our city's No. 1 employer, providing some 81,000 jobs and $5 billion a year in revenues.

Unfortunately, New Orleans' tourism amenities have to this point been separated by distance and socioeconomic chasms that accentuated the city's racial and economic divides.

Situated on higher ground, the French Quarter remains a singular and colorful enclave that came through Katrina relatively unscathed. The now-notorious Ernest N. Morial Convention Center - a first-rate facility when used for its intended purpose - and surrounding area sit on the Mississippi River and have regenerated much of that part of the city. The popular Harrah's New Orleans Casino is proximate to the convention center, accentuating a further commercial shift toward the river.

A third major metropolitan locus is the Superdome district that also includes the New Orleans Arena, the Entergy Corporation's imposing office tower, an increasingly low-end shopping mall, and many of the city's great downtown hotels including the 1,200 room Hyatt Regency, among New Orleans' largest, which I have been privileged to lead.

This third area, like Chicago's State Street, St. Louis' downtown, or the Baltimore Harbor District, has struggled in years past to find its footing. While expensive and well-intentioned, the area has failed to attract either tourist or foot traffic on a consistent basis.

Suggestions for rebuilding New Orleans appear to be coming from everywhere these days. They may make headlines, but, regrettably, they will lead to only more of the same. What is required is a "big picture" master plan from a latter-day Robert Moses, the visionary who remade New York City more than a half century ago. In order to maximize the potential growth in tourism, these three key tourist areas must be cohesively linked by a new light-transportation infrastructure to create a much more integrated and economically viable city.

The challenge for the "new" New Orleans is to develop a dynamic, creative plan designed to make all three of these tourist areas interconnected "must visit" destinations.

My firm is currently talking to a number of leading US and international architects and planners about their ideas for bringing New Orleans back better than ever. Some of the initial proposals we have discussed at length, and which should be part of any plan, include:

• A world-class memorial for Katrina victims.

• An interactive hurricane museum commemorating the history of this apocalyptic event.

• A children's museum.

• A jazz/blues/New Orleans cultural hall of fame.

• A retail and entertainment area accenting all aspects of the New Orleans "experience."

• An exhibition hall to complement current facilities.

• A light transportation system that links the three major tourist areas.

Of course, funding and housing many of the city's economically disenfranchised and now homeless must be addressed. However, only if New Orleans is rebuilt as a better-than-ever tourist destination will there be the jobs for its disadvantaged citizens.

The tragedy of Katrina has presented New Orleans with a rare opportunity to remake itself. Careful and thoughtful planning will allow New Orleans to evolve into a truly 21st-century American city that will thrive and prosper long after the temporary boom effects from rebuilding have diminished.

Laurence Geller is president and chief executive officer of Strategic Hotel Capital, Inc., owner of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.

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