Jazz Center focus of $716M project for New Orleans


New Orleans' first large-scale, post-Katrina revitalization project, a 20-acre performing-arts park anchored by a new National Jazz Center, is winning enthusiastic support within the travel and tourism industry.

Plans unveiled last week by Strategic Hotels & Resorts, whose high-end properties include the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, call for a $716 million development near the Superdome that would include a 20-acre performance arts park with a National Jazz Center, a six-block lawn, an outdoor auditorium and new city government and courts buildings.

Many in the tourism industry expressed hope that the development would simultaneously attract visitors and inspire confidence among potential investors.

“When I heard about it, it was the most encouraged I’ve been about developments in New Orleans since Katrina,” said Beverly Gianna, a marketing consultant and former vice president of communications of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Alluding to the central role played by Strategic Hotels & Resorts in developing the concept, Gianna added: “The hospitality industry has its proponents and its detractors, but in this case it was a key catalyst toward development. The tourism industry is playing a big part in the recovery.”

Besides being a centerpiece for post-Katrina recovery, the project offers solutions to several unrelated challenges, including replacing deteriorating city and state government buildings, extending the city’s public transportation system to the Superdome area and giving the neighborhood an upgrade that many regard as long overdue.

The project has the backing of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis participated in the project’s planning, as did another jazz horn player, Irvin Mayfield, who is director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. The Jazz Center would be home to the orchestra.

Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the New Orleans CVB, said that giving New Orleans’ jazz heritage an institutional home was a crucial step for the city.

“Even if the city had not suffered so much devastation, this would still be a really significant project,” Romig said. “The idea of celebrating a jazz district, a home for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, will be a great asset in attracting international visitors.”

Strategic Hotels CEO Laurence Geller, the prime mover behind the project, is a music buff who attended jazz clubs as a child with his father, a conductor of the BBC Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic. Yet, he freely admits his primary motivation is the bottom line.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I had to get this done.” The Hyatt Regency New Orleans is a $200 million investment sitting idly on the company’s balance sheet, he said, represent an $18 million to $20 million annual loss in cash flow.

Geller drew his inspiration from the success of Chicago’s Millennium Park, a 24-acre, downtown green space that opened in 2004 and includes public gardens, sculpture and an outdoor concert pavilion.

“It was one of the most astonishing things,” he said of Millennium Park. “I’m not sure I supported the original vision, building over some old rail yards, connecting several parts of the city. It was controversial, over budget, but it has been a stunning success. It has initiated so much development. It brings 4 million to 4.5 million visitors a year.”

Strategic Hotels, in fact, eventually bought the Fairmont Hotel that looks out onto Chicago’s Millennium Park and is now in the process of expanding it to accommodate the increased tourist traffic.

Millennium Park, said Geller, has “galvanized that whole part of Chicago. The whole area is seeing a rejuvenation.”

But he predicted that the New Orleans project would be even better because of the “added dimension” of the National Jazz Center.

Robin Tauck, president and CEO of Tauck World Discovery, said the project would “bring some wonderful New Orleans culture and character to a section of the city that doesn’t really have the panache of the French Quarter or the Garden District.”

Hurricane Katrina left Strategic Hotels & Resorts in a quandary, Geller said. “For $200 million we could rebuild in the same place as before in a market that needs resuscitation because of the hurricane. But the circumstances created an opportunity of creating something fantastic around it. Altruism plays into it in one part, pragmatism in the other. In this case, as the pieces fit together, we were able to fix, in one master plan, many of the issues that had arisen.”

Geller said the group had identified funding sources for $400 million, “so it’s well on its way to becoming a viable success.” Still, he cautioned, “Anything can happen in three or four years of execution.”

The plans were produced by an advisory board assembled by Strategic Hotels & Resorts, the Hyatt Corp., the Superdome Management Group, the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana.

“No one person could have been bold enough to do it alone,” said Geller. “The point-counterpoint was essential in bringing about the result.”

A study commissioned by the Hyatt District Rebirth Advisory Board estimates that the development will generate almost 14,000 man-years of construction work and create more than 6,500 permanent jobs, a total economic impact estimated at $6 billion over 20 years.

The Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which Geller said will reopen in late 2007, will be largely rebuilt on its existing superstructure.

John Galvin, CFO of Collette Vacations, said the park would serve as a morale booster for the industry. “It’s a signal that, look! we’re rebuilding.”

A more tempered view of the project was offered last week by Isabelle Cossart, owner of Tours by Isabelle, which drew headlines for its post-Katrina tours.

“The good thing about it is that it’s private money, not government money,” she said. “So that’s fine. But when I do my tours and I still see no people in houses, I think, ‘Where are all the workers on this project going to live?’ Housing should be a priority. But maybe one will be a catalyst for the other.”

Geller admitted that despite extensive repairs and improvements to the levees, he remained concerned about severe weather causing more damage to the city as it struggles to resurrect itself.

As the project gets rolling, Geller said, “I’d like a quiet summer.”

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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