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Major expansion of Convention Center clears Senate, nears final approval

10th June 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Tyler Bridges
thelensnola.org

Officials at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center are one step from receiving the state Legislature’s authorization to begin the latest expansion of the state-owned facility.

Unlike previous expansions, this one would not create more floor space for conventions. Instead, plans for the proposed Phase V expansion would allow a private company to turn vacant land just upriver of the center into a massive development involving at least one hotel, condominiums, retail stores and restaurants.

Plans also call for upgrading Convention Center Boulevard and demolishing or refurbishing the city of New Orleans’ World Trade Center.

The state Senate overwhelmingly authorized Phase V on Monday, 36-1. State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, dissented because he said he doesn’t believe that taxpayer dollars should be used to further a private development on the publicly owned upriver site.

Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, who spoke for the bill, said one benefit of the project would be “to reduce pressure on the French Quarter,” which is the city’s main tourism area.

The convention center project would cost $184 million.

Mayor New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said recently that the expansion and more money to promote tourism in New Orleans would “turbocharge” the riverfront.

The extra money for tourism marketing would come from a measure approved by the Legislature that is now before Gov. Bobby Jindal.

That measure, Senate Bill 242, would allow hotels in New Orleans to impose a surcharge of up to 1.75 percent on guests’ bills. About $12 million per year would go to the New Orleans Visitors and Convention Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp. to sell New Orleans as a destination for visitors.

Steve Perry, who heads the visitors and convention bureau, said it would boost tourism spending by $500 million per year and create several thousand tourism jobs.

He said the board will decide the surcharge percentage at its June 18 meeting. At 1.75 percent, the surcharge would generate about $14 million a year.

The convention center’s plans are fuzzy.

Tim Hemphill, the convention center’s vice president for sales and marketing, said officials haven’t decided yet how they would finance the $184 million expansion. He said they might tap their reserves, although he could not identify how much might be available. He also could not say whether convention officials will seek state construction dollars.

“We’re a long way from the development taking shape,” Hemphill said, although he added that they hoped to complete much of the project by 2018 when New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday.

Hemphill could not identify which local government authorities would have to approve the convention center’s plans other than the city’s role in redeveloping the site of the vacant World Trade Center at the foot of Canal Street.

Hemphill did not return a follow-up call asking what the convention center’s first step will be after the Legislature authorizes the expansion.

The above article was reported by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit news site in New Orleans.

This article originally published in the June 10, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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