Fat Tuesday musings

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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