Archive for February, 2016

The 1836 Club

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The best thing for me when three business partners purchased the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road was that the large wooden RPM sign that misspelled the name of this Little Rock landmark finally came down.

Each morning as I would drive by that sign on the way to work, the old editor in me wanted to scream.

Others with a strong sense of Arkansas history told me that they felt the same way.

Mark Camp is an investment banker who worked as a trader for Crews & Associates of Little Rock until 2014.

Rod Damon is a Little Rock-based mortgage trader for the Bank of Oklahoma.

Jeremy Hutchinson is a state senator, attorney and business investor.

Over drinks at the bar of one of their favorite steakhouses — Arthur’s in west Little Rock — they would discuss how Little Rock needed a private dining club that served dinner. The Little Rock Club on the top floor of the Regions Building downtown serves lunch five days a week, but dinner is only offered about twice a month.

“Every city of significant size has something like this,” Camp says. “I began searching online for a location. At first, they were asking too much for the Packet House for us to make it work. When they lowered the price, we got involved. They spent $1.3 million on renovations back in 2012 so we won’t have to do much beyond some new flooring, painting, new art for the walls and leather furniture.”

The 1836 Club was born.

It’s a nod to history since 1836 was the year Arkansas became a state.

Few structures are more historic in the capital city than the Packet House, one of the 15 oldest buildings in Pulaski County.

“We could go in there and serve dinner tonight if we wanted to,” Hutchinson says. “It has a great kitchen, among the best in the state.”

And it’s about to have a great chef since the three partners hired Donnie Ferneau, who will shut down his Good Food on Main Street in North Little Rock to devote full time to the 1836 Club.

Ferneau will serve meals on the first floor, which will include a private dining room known as the Governor’s Room. The main dining area will be known as the Caucus Room.

The second floor will be the home of the Pilots’ Lounge, which will include large television screens for watching sporting events, pool tables and card tables. Fine cigars will be available upstairs in the Humidor Lounge.

Charter applications are still being accepted with an opening planned for later this spring. The partners make clear that this is not just a club for male Republicans. Both men and women — and people of all political persuasions — are being encouraged to join.

So how did the partners end up with a well-known chef such as Ferneau?

“He heard that we were going to do this and reached out to us,” Camp says. “He will let us worry about the business end of things, so now he will be able to do what he really likes to do — create, cook and cater.”

Hutchinson admits: “I never thought we would have a chance to get him.”

Icing on the cake, to use the cliché.

The house, built in 1869, has 12,000 square feet of space. A proposed menu in the private club application includes seared scallops, seared duck breast with jalapeno corncakes, braised short ribs and the like.

The house was built by Alexander McDonald, who was born in 1832 in Pennsylvania. McDonald was a driven man with a shrewd business sense. He headed west to the Kansas Territory in 1857 to seek his fortune. He and his brother ran a sawmill and later became bankers.

McDonald was living in Fort Scott, Kan., with his wife and two daughters when the Civil War began. He helped organize Union forces in the area but later resigned so he could make money as a supplier for Union troops. It was that effort that brought him to Fort Smith in the fall of 1863. He not only supplied the Union troops there but organized a bank.

Steven Teske picks up the story from there for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Under the reign of McDonald and his partner, Perry Fuller, corruption at the fort was rampant, to the extent that Gen. James G. Blunt was widely regarded as subservient to the company directors. McDonald arrived in Little Rock not long after it had been taken by Union forces and, before the end of the war, McDonald had organized the Merchants National Bank in Little Rock, of which he was president. McDonald worked actively to rebuild the industry and economy of Little Rock and of the state of Arkansas after the Civil War. In addition to his banking efforts, he was also vice president of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad and president of the Arkansas Bridge Co., which was organized to construct a bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock. This was one of at least three competing companies seeking both private investments and government funding. Their efforts in 1869-70 led indirectly to the construction of the Baring Cross Bridge in 1873.

“Later, McDonald also served as president of the Little Rock & Fort Towson Railroad. At one point, he was considered the richest man in Arkansas. … McDonald also served in the state’s constitutional convention of 1868. Following this convention, the newly assembled state Legislature named him, along with Benjamin Franklin Rice, to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Senate. McDonald and Rice were sworn in as senators on June 22, 1868, but McDonald’s term was to end at the conclusion of 1871. During his short term, McDonald’s greatest contribution was probably his support for the impeached President Andrew Johnson. Not only did McDonald vote against conviction, but he spoke to persuade other senators to do the same, allowing Johnson to complete his term.

“Although McDonald hoped to be re-elected by the Legislature to a full term in the Senate, politics back in Little Rock intervened. McDonald was associated with the Brindletail faction of the Republican Party, which was resisting the efforts of Gov. Powell Clayton to dominate state politics. When Clayton announced his intention to run for McDonald’s Senate seat, the Brindletails chose to cooperate, hoping to replace Clayton with Lt. Gov. James Johnson, one of their allies in state government. The resulting confusion ended with Clayton as senator, Ozra Hadley as acting governor, Johnson as secretary of state and McDonald outside of the government. Discouraged by his failure to continue in politics, McDonald sold his large house and eventually relocated to the New York area around 1874.

“McDonald continued to pursue his interest in railroads, and he was commissioned by President Chester Arthur in 1885 to examine the finances of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1900, McDonald was living in the New York area house of his daughter, Tacie Harper. McDonald died on Dec. 13, 1903, at his daughter’s house and was subsequently buried at Highland Cemetery in Lock Haven, Pa.”

The houses erected by McDonald and others during the Reconstruction period on the north side of Cantrell — then known as Lincoln Avenue — were built by men who had been Union supporters during the war. Because of that, the area became known as Carpetbaggers’ Row and Robbers’ Row.

The home McDonald built later was owned by William Wait, a president of Merchants National Bank, and Ann McHenry Reider, who moved in with her two daughters and their husbands. The husbands were twins, Tom and Robert Newton. The house would serve as the Newton family home for several decades.

In the 1940s, the name was changed to the Packet House as a nod to the packet boats that once plied the Arkansas River.

The house later was converted into apartments and fell into a period of decline.

The Packet House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, rehabilitated and used for offices and a restaurant. It later became vacant and began deteriorating again, to the point that it was placed on the Historic Preservation of Arkansas’ (now Preserve Arkansas) list of the most endangered structures in the state in 2011.

The HPAA wrote that year: “The house, which is zoned for commercial use, has been vacant and for sale for several years. Recently, a prospective developer seeking to purchase the house applied for a permit to use the Packet House as a restaurant. This is a positive turn for the Packet House. However, years of vacancy have taken their toll on the house and the future of the building remains uncertain.”

The house was purchased, more than $1 million was spent and chef Wes Ellis opened his Packet House Grill in 2012.

By the spring of 2014, Ellis was out, and it was announced that James Beard Award nominee Lee Richardson would take over as executive chef and owner. Foodies across Arkansas (including yours truly) rejoiced that the New Orleans native would be returning to a Little Rock restaurant kitchen.

Richardson said at the time: “For more than six years, I’ve driven by the Packet House almost daily, and I’ve always felt like it fit my vision for the ultimate in fine dining in Little Rock. I came to Little Rock and took over a well-known and well-respected restaurant at Ashley’s, and that’s exactly what I’m excited to be doing at the Packet House.”

Unfortunately for central Arkansas diners, the deal fell through.

The Packet House Grill closed and the building was put up for sale. And we spent almost two years having to look at that misspelled for-sale sign.

 

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Lenten thoughts on NOLA

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

For years, the New Orleans Police Department has made it a big production: A motorcade clears Bourbon Street of revelers when the clock strikes midnight on Fat Tuesday.

In one of the nation’s most Catholic cities, it’s supposed to symbolize the end of Carnival and the start of Lent.

Though thousands of people attended Ash Wednesday masses in the Crescent City this week, that motorcade is largely for show. The television cameramen love it. You can bet that the restaurants and bars were still going strong Wednesday.

In a Fat Tuesday post on this blog, I talked about the things that have happened in the decade since Hurricane Katrina. I outlined some of the billions of dollars in construction now taking place in the city and admitted that I had been among those who doubted New Orleans could bounce back from the flood.

The goal now must be to ensure that those things that make New Orleans attractive to visitors aren’t lost in the rush to build apartment complexes, medical centers, hotels and the like. I’ve long been fascinated with the history of the American South. So obviously I’m attracted to New Orleans, which for so long stood as the most important city in the region.

I renewed my love affair with New Orleans during a visit two weeks ago.

I stayed at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. It’s not particularly old — having been built in 1964 — but it sits at the corner of Orleans and Bourbon, a historic intersection.

“The Orleans Theatre opened its doors in 1815,” the hotel’s website states. “The French-provincial building rivaled in grandeur and luxury the old theaters of Europe, but arson brought its glory to ash one year after its debut. John Davis, a New Orleans entrepreneur, quickly rebuilt Theatre d’Orleans and added a grand ballroom known as Salle d’Orleans. The theater was a masterpiece of classic architecture with its lower story of Roman Doric order and upper columns fashioned with ornate Corinthian flutes and elaborate capitals. Creole society flocked to Theatre d’Orleans and Salle d’Orleans. Ladies in full evening costume and men of taste enjoyed performances in the French language.”

In 1881, the Sisters of the Holy Family purchased the site and, in the words of the hotel website, “transformed a former place of vice into a sacred edifice of virtue. The ballroom became the sisterhood’s motherhouse as well as the first Catholic secondary school for colored girls in New Orleans, St. Mary’s Academy. Its atmosphere was no longer that of waltzing Parisian gowns and coquettish young blades of old New Orleans but instead a dedication of women to the cause of religion and charity.”

By the early 1960s, a larger building in a more convenient location (have you ever tried driving around the French Quarter?) was needed. The site was sold to the Bourbon Kings Hotel Corp., and constructions began on the Bourbon Orleans.

During the first night of my visit, I made the short walk from the hotel to Antoine’s to meet Marc Becker, the director of sales and marketing for the New Orleans Hotel Collection, which owns the Bourbon Orleans.

Before going into the 175-year-old restaurant, we met in the Hermes Bar, one of the expansions engineered by Rick Bount, the fifth generation of the family to operate Antoine’s. Blount worked at Antoine’s as a teenager and college student. He managed and owned businesses in Louisiana and Texas before returning to his family business at the urging of his mother, Yvonne Alicatore Blount, in March 2005.

Katrina did massive damage to the building housing Antoine’s. Rick Blount, though, saw it as an opportunity to update the building while at the same time preserving its history. He added the Hermes Bar and the small European-style café on Royal Street known as Antoine’s Annex. He came up with a modern marketing plan. It’s safe to say that Blount has made more changes in the past decade than had been made in the previous century.

Before the storm, Antoine’s was resting on its laurels and living in the past.

The food coming out of the kitchen is better than ever these days with executive chef Michael Regua, whose mother was an Antoine’s cook, directing operations. The younger Regua began work as a prep cook at Antoine’s in 1972.

Antoine’s lost its wine collection in the storm, but beverage manager Matthew Ousset, who started at the restaurant as a waiter and has worked there more than three decades, now oversees a wine cellar of more than 18,000 bottles.

After arriving in this country from his native France, Antoine Alciatore stopped in New York and then came south to New Orleans. French was spoken widely in New Orleans in 1840, and Alciatore felt at home in America’s most European city.

A history of the restaurant posted on the Antoine’s website picks up the story from there: “After a brief period in the kitchen of the grand St. Charles Hotel, Antoine opened a pension, a boarding house and restaurant. It was then that he made arrangements for his fiancée to join him from New York. She came to New Orleans with her sister, and she and Antoine were married. Together they worked to build up their pension with culinary emphasis. New Orleans’ gentility was so taken with the restaurant that it soon outgrew its small quarters, and Antoine’s moved down the block and eventually, in 1868, to the spot on St. Louis Street where the restaurant stands today.

“In 1874, Antoine, being in ill health, took leave of his family with the management of the restaurant in his wife’s hands. He felt he had not much longer to live and wished to die and be buried in his birthplace in France. He told his wife he did not want her to watch him deteriorate and said as he left: ‘As I take the boat for Marseilles, we will not meet again on earth.’ He died within the year. After Antoine’s death, his son Jules served as apprentice under his mother’s tutelage for six years before she sent him to France, where he served in the great kitchens of Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles. He returned to New Orleans and became chef of the famous Pickwick Club in 1887 before his mother summoned him to head the house of Antoine.”

It was Jules who invented oysters Rockefeller. He married Althea Roy, the daughter of a southwest Louisiana planter, and they had three children — Roy, Jules Jr. and Mary Louise. Roy led the restaurant for almost 40 years until his death in 1972.

Mary Louise married William Guste. Their sons William Jr. (a former Louisiana attorney general) and Roy Guste Sr. became the fourth generation of the family to head the restaurant.

Roy Guste Jr. led Antoine’s from 1975-84. William Jr.’s son, Bernard “Randy” Guste, then managed Antoine’s through 2004.

Blount had worked as the restaurant’s assistant night manager while studying finance at Loyola University. His uncles, William Jr. (known as Billy) and Roy Sr., told him he wouldn’t be a good fit at the restaurant.

“If you had asked me this in my 30s, I would have said that I was discriminated against because my name wasn’t Guste,” Blount told the Times-Picayune last year. “But today I would tell you that I probably was a bull in a china shop. I had this absolute righteousness about me that I knew what was right. That restaurant was a novelty to us and quite honestly it wasn’t that attractive to us as kids. It was very formal. You had to be quiet.”

Blount’s father was a marine surveyor. The family lived far from the restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans and usually only showed up to eat during Mardi Gras.

“There was pride that we belonged to that family, but there was no economic advantage,” Blount told the newspaper. “We didn’t get to drive a Corvette. We struggled to figure out if we could get new shoes.”

Blount’s first business after college repaired boats for blue marlin fishing. When the shareholders selected Blount to run the restaurant in 2005, his family decided to buy the half stake it didn’t already own.

“There was rampant nepotism everywhere,” Blount told the Times-Picayune. “Everyone was related to everyone. Everyone dated everyone. I thought: ‘How does anyone manage under these conditions?’ It’s just crazy. I thought we needed an operating handbook. We needed service standards. We needed recipe files. What we had were rituals, and I thought we needed laws. I was wrong.”

In the more casual society in which we live, Blount relaxed the Antoine’s dress code and worked hard to attract younger customers to the Hermes Bar, hoping they later would become patrons of the restaurant.

“I think I’ve been a good defender,” he said. “I’ve changed things to allow me to keep things. I think we’re a work in progress. I think we always will be.”

Just around the corner from Antoine’s, there’s an equally refreshed version of Brennan’s. A family feud left the restaurant closed and tied up in the courts before it was bought by Ralph Brennan (who is from another branch of the Brennan family tree) and business partner Terry White. After purchasing the famous salmon-colored structure on Royal Street in 2014, they spent an estimated $20 million (that’s right — $20 million on a restaurant) and hired one of the city’s favorite chefs, Slade Rushing, who has done a spectacular job updating the old Brennan’s classics while adding new dishes to the menu.

Along with the rebirth of traditional New Orleans restaurants such as Antoine’s and Brennan’s, there are the scores of new restaurants gaining attention in all parts of the city. In fact, New Orleans now has almost 600 more restaurants than were operating prior to Katrina.

The January edition of Biz New Orleans magazine featured a story on brothers Marviani, Zeid and Richy Ammari, whose company Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts operates a dozen full-service restaurants with more on the way. The restaurant lineup includes such well-known names in the French Quarter as Broussard’s, The Bombay Club and Café Maspero.

Zeid told the magazine: “The city is growing at an unbelievable speed. … The business community is feeling a tremendous growth, and you have to react to that.”

While he was in college in 1989, Marviani took over his first daiquiri store. In addition to the full-service restaurants, the brothers now operate a number of Big Easy Daiquiri locations.

“I love driving downtown, even on a Sunday morning, to touch the buildings, maybe stop at one of the restaurants for a cup of coffee, see the managers,” Marviani told the magazine. “We truly live in the best city in the world. I love what I do.”

The brothers, who now have more than 1,000 employees, bought their first full-service restaurant — the Chartres House — in 2003. They thought about moving their operations to Houston after Katrina, but Marviani finally told his relatives: “I’m not a gambler, but I’m going to put all my money on New Orleans.”

The bet paid off.

The brothers recently turned a former Arby’s location on Canal Street into Creole House Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

On Royal Street, they’re adding what they describe as a rustic Louisiana bistro.

In 2006, the first full year after Katrina, New Orleans had an estimated 3.7 million visitors. There were more than 9.5 million visitors last year.

Diana Schwam, who writes the Frommer’s guide for New Orleans, said of the city: “The post-Katrina energy that has emerged is insane. It’s just really fun and exciting.”

The population has dropped from 460,000 before the storm to about 380,000, but annual hotel revenue has grown from about $1 billion before the storm to more than $1.4 billion now. Total visitor spending is estimated at more than $6 billion. More than 80,000 jobs in the New Orleans area are linked to the hospitality sector. There also were more than 125 permitted festivals in the city last year.

In an article last fall, this is how The New York Times summed up what New Orleans has become in the decade since Katrina: “Old-school Southern men of commerce can still be found here heading to work in seersucker suits in the heat of the hurricane months. They still swap gossip at the private Boston Club and sip Friday-afternoon sazeracs at Galatoire’s, the white-tablecloth grande dame of Creole cooking, just across Canal Street in the fabled French Quarter.

“But in the post-Katrina reality of the Central Business District, these proud and timeless creatures co-exist with a small band of entrepreneurs and techies who lounge, in the glow of laptops, on Swedish-style furniture. They swap irregularly shaped business cards at Capdeville, a gastropub where a riff on red beans and rice is served with a green onion aioli. They make deals at the Pulp & Grind coffee shop, where a flier on a bulletin board recently announced, ‘Cloud developers unite!’ The start-up scene here is, to a great extent, a deliberate construct, built by a small, aggressive group of boosters who believe that this city, so careful to honor its past, must innovate its way to a future that isn’t so reliant on the old standbys of the oil, gas and hospitality industries.”

It’s the new New Orleans.

And it’s worth a visit.

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Fat Tuesday musings

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

I write this on Fat Tuesday.

When your name is Rex, it’s a requirement that you like Mardi Gras.

They got an early start today in New Orleans.

The Krewe of Zulu rolled this morning at 8 a.m. in Uptown, followed by the Krewe of Rex at 10 a.m. The Krewe of Elks Orleans and the Krewe of Crescent City followed.

Out in Metairie, the Krewe of Argus rolled at 10 a.m., followed by the Krewe of Elks Jefferson and the Krewe of Jefferson.

North of the lake in Covington, the Krewe of Lyra rolled at 10 a.m.

I’m not in New Orleans, mind you. I’m home in Little Rock. But I was in the Crescent City two weeks ago, and I was struck at every turn with how wrong I was 10 years ago when I was going there on a regular basis in my role as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authoirty.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved New Orleans.

In my days as a sportswriter, I covered four Sugar Bowls and a Super Bowl there. The Saints are my favorite NFL team. I spent my honeymoon there in 1989. Yet it’s time for a confession: I was among those who doubted that the city could ever recover from Hurricane Katrina. I never dreamed that so many talented young people would see opportunity where others only saw destruction. I guess it was the skeptical former journalist in me.

There are problems to be sure.

High crime rates.

Struggling schools.

They’re the same kinds of problems one finds in so many of the country’s urban areas. Even in the face of such challenges, there has been the influx of what Forbes described as “YURPS, or Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals — urbanists, environmentalists and social workers who headed south to work in the recovery efforts, in nonprofits and government programs, seeking to be part of something important. After that came a wave of well-educated professionals, who saw personal opportunity in the city’s rebuilding economy. Along with them … have come a fair number of artists, musicians and creative types seeking to join in what they perceived to be an undiscovered bohemia in the lower faubourgs of New Orleans.”

Even the airline I flew in a direct flight from Little Rock to New Orleans — GLO — is the work of an entrepreneur.

Here’s how Forbes put it last fall: “They say necessity is the mother of invention. So what happens when New Orleans loses a few important, direct flights to nearby cities along the Mid-South region post-Katrina? Some travelers were relegated to creating long, more arduous travel itineraries that included multiple flights or longer drives. New Orleans entrepreneur Trey Fayard, however, didn’t just create a new flight schedule; he founded an air carrier.”

GLO began daily direct flights between New Orleans and Little Rock, Memphis and Shreveport in November.

“Up until now, many professionals were left with new challenges when flights were discontinued after Hurricane Katrina,” the magazine reported. “It wasn’t just business travelers from New Orleans who were inconvenienced but those who traveled to New Orleans from around the underserved Southern region as well. Short one-hour flights turned into grueling travel itineraries with layovers. One-day business trips turned into extended overnight stays. For some, those interactive, face-to-face meetings turned into conference calls in an effort to avoid the complicated travel.”

Little Rock’s Mike Maulden, the director of business and economic development for Entergy Arkansas, told the magazine: “This is the single biggest opportunity for Entergy. For us, there will be an increase of productivity and decreased expenses.”

GLO operates 30-passenger Saab 340B aircraft that I found quite comfortable.

Fayard is an attorney who works with the shipping and oil and gas industries. He also began organizing chartered business trips along the way.

“I was basically acting as a de facto charter broker for my buddies and friends and people I didn’t even know,” he told Forbes. “I figured if other people were struggling as much as I was to get around the Gulf States and Mid-South, there must be an opportunity there. … It was a very daunting process, but I had a huge fear of waking up at 50 years old and seeing that someone else had my same idea and the willingness to go for it. That was a motivating factor.”

Michael Hecht, the president of the economic development agency Greater New Orleans Inc., said New Orleans has become “one of the most entrepreneurial regions in America.”

He added that the city “attracted some of the best and most passionate people in the world after Katrina to help rebuild. You just had a talent influx. A lot of people saw New Orleans as the Peace Corps with better food.”

There has, of course, been a massive infusion of public funds to complement the private investment.

FEMA’s assistance to Louisiana for rebuilding infrastructure and hazard mitigation grants since Katrina and Rita in 2005 is almost $14 billion and will continue to grow. The federal government has agreed to pay New Orleans another $2 billion to fix streets and water pipes. The Times-Picayune described it as “welcome news to a city where the potholes and water leaks outnumber the beignets and sazeracs.”

It’s especially impressive to see the amount of work being done in the Central Business District, the Warehouse District and the French Quarter.

The Times-Picayune reported late last year: “Dozens of worn hotels have shed their skins through multimillion-dollar refurbishments. Old shells of historic office buildings now boast reclaimed wood ceilings, marble countertops and high-end rents. Stores and shops have sprouted up where parking lots once stood. New residents flock to the city’s historic core, living in alcoves and lofts that a century ago housed cotton, grain and coffee.

“At least $3 billion in private money has been pumped into real estate projects in the Downtown Development District, bordered by Claiborne Avenue, Canal and Calliope streets and the Mississippi River. And from the looks of things, there is much more to come.”

The number of people living in downtown New Orleans has doubled in the decade since Katrina. The occupancy rate of high-end apartments in the neighborhood is 98 percent.

Developer Pres Kabacoff told the newspaper: “Right now, the CBD is flourishing. The Warehouse District is flourishing. One of the reasons it’s flourishing is because people do want to return to the city, live in those old, walkable neighborhoods, and that’s a great advantage that we have. You need to keep that momentum going.”

In the words of one commercial mortgage banker: “We’ve sort of crossed a threshold where there’s a lot of money from outside the region that doesn’t mind coming here to invest now that would not have done that before.”

Success begets success, and developers across the country consider New Orleans a wise investment for the first time in decades.

Developer Michael Valentino told the Times-Picayune that a decade after the real storm, it’s kind of the perfect economic development storm for New Orleans.

“Certainly you can’t discount the billions of post-storm recovery dollars, the billions of BP spill dollars that have injected this huge amount of infrastructure that never would have come to a community our size,” he said. “And you prime the pump for investment and confidence. So you put those ingredients together and combine that with a relatively stable national economy, and you season it with difficulties traveling abroad that are driving more Americans to domestic locations. … We’ve got all the sun and moons and stars right now aligned in the right direction.”

An example: Kabacoff’s company is spending $63 million to turn the Hibernia Bank building, which was the tallest in the city from 1921-64, into apartments.

Architect and developer Marcel Wisznia told the Times-Picayune: “When you look at the number of buildings that are being renovated, when you look at the parking lots that are now being built upon, you see a belief in downtown unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

Developers are set to spend a whopping $364 million to transform the former World Trade Center into a mixed-used development that will include a Four Seasons Hotel.

The Domain Cos., which was started by two Tulane University graduates, will transform what was a barren area of parking lots near Loyola Avenue into what’s known as the South Market District. There are plans for 700 apartments, retail shops, restaurants and a hotel.

A $2 billion medical complex is taking shape nearby.

“There has never been a period like the period we’re experiencing right now,” Valentino said. “It’s exciting and it’s scary at the same time because it’s happening so fast.”

New Orleans is being called everything from “Brooklyn on the Bayou” (because so many hipsters are moving to the city) to “America’s Lazarus city.” Since 2007, the city has attracted a higher percentage of college-educated millennials than any other urban area.

We all stayed glued to the cable news networks in those late-summer days of 2005 and watched a unique American city drown. As noted, I was among those who doubted that New Orleans would ever recover, especially as I began to make regular business trips for the DRA and truly came to understand the depth of the despair.

Yet in the words of urban historian Kevin Lynch: “A city is hard to kill.”

Especially one with the heart and soul of a New Orleans.

Because so many of the oil and gas jobs have migrated to Houston since the 1970s, New Orleans won’t be hurt as badly by the current oil bust as some other cities in the region. More than ever, tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg for the Crescent City, and those numbers are outstanding.

Hotel developers have taken note. Just consider a few of the projects already completed or in motion:

— The Portland-based, super-hip Ace brand is moving into an art deco building along with Stumptown Coffee.

— Virgin Hotels is planning a facility at the corner of Baronne and Lafayette. The New Orleans City Council overrode a New Orleans Planning Commission vote and approved construction of the 14-story Virgin, which will cost $55 million. Council members said they hope billionaire Richard Branson also will bring his Virgin Airlines to New Orleans.

— An Atlanta-based development group is turning an old Quality Inn into one of Marriott’s new Moxy brand hotels. The first Moxy Hotel is in Milan, Italy. Other planned U.S. locations are New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle.

— A Maryland-based company is transforming the 14-story Oil & Gas Building into one of Hilton’s new Canopy Hotels, which are geared toward younger travelers.

— In November 2014, the 220-room AC Hotel opened in a former bank building. It’s the brand’s first property in this country.

— In March 2015, a 188-room Aloft Hotel opened as part of a downtown mixed-use complex.

— Also in March 2015, a $29 million conversion of a former W Hotel into a 410-room Le Meridien was completed.

— The old Ambassador Hotel was transformed into a 167-room boutique property known as the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery. USA Today named it as one of the 10 best new hotels in the country.

— The Hyatt House opened in November, bringing 194 extended-stay hotel rooms to the downtown area.

There already are almost 40,000 hotel rooms available in the New Orleans area.

The dining scene also is exploding.

Besh Restaurant Group will reopen the famed Caribbean Room restaurant in the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue later this year following a $10 million renovation of the hotel. The restaurant originally opened in 1948 and long was considered one of the city’s finest.

John Besh also announced that his company will reopen the city’s Silver Whistle coffee shop along with a new rooftop bar. The Pontchartrain opened in 1927 and was long a favorite of the likes of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra.

We’re talking about all this progress in a city that Joel Garreau once described as a “marvelous collection of sleaziness and peeling paint.”

Wisznia, the architect and developer, looked back on those days after Katrina when so many of us were doubting New Orleans could recover and said: “It took me about a week to get from the point of thinking that there was no hope to realizing there was great opportunity, that we have an opportunity to rebuild our city in ways we couldn’t have done before this hurricane.”

On this Fat Tuesday, that’s something to celebrate for those of us who know what it means to miss New Orleans.

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