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New Orleans roars back

College basketball teams will continue to battle tonight, Saturday and Sunday for the right to head to New Orleans for the Final Four.

As the Crescent City prepares to host college basketball’s premier event, there’s a remarkable story that needs to be told. It’s the story of New Orleans’ recovery just more than six years after Hurricane Katrina delivered a blow that many Americans thought would permanently cripple the city.

Writing in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Douglas McCollam noted: “Katrina certainly gave New Orleans the opening to remake its failed institutions. Today about 80 percent of the city’s public schools, formerly among the nation’s worst, are charter schools competing on performance to attract students. The city’s antiquated Charity Hospital will soon be replaced by a state-of-the-art medical center, part of a larger, 2.4-square-mile medical corridor anchored by a new cancer research facility and BioInnovation Center.

“Thanks to aggressive tax incentives, this year New Orleans is on pace to supplant New York as the biggest feature-filmmaking center outside of Los Angeles, a successful model the city is seeking to replicate in both music and software design.

“These and other initiatives are changing the city’s commercial culture. Once viewed almost exclusively as a booze-soaked destination for debauchery, New Orleans was tabbed last year by Forbes as the No. 1 brain magnet in the country for college graduates, and Inc. magazine dubbed it the ‘coolest start-up city in America.’

“Last month the city beat out a dozen rivals for a new GE Capital technology center that will bring about 300 high-end tech jobs.”

I was on vacation with my family at Mexico Beach in Florida when I received a call from the White House on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. I was informed that I had been appointed by President Bush to the regional economic development organization known as the Delta Regional Authority.

On the way back to Arkansas, we spent two nights in New Orleans. Melissa and I took our boys to mass at St. Louis Cathedral on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 14, followed by breakfast at Brennan’s. It was a wonderful day.

As we pulled out the following morning, we had no way of knowing that two weeks later, Katrina would hit, the levees would fail and 80 percent of New Orleans would be flooded.

I began my work for the DRA soon after the storm — our area included land on both sides of the Mississippi River down to its mouth in Plaquemines Parish — and made a number of business-related trips to New Orleans during the next four years.

I vividly remember those early days after the storm when the few restaurants that were open were devoid of tourists. One night, Chef Paul Prudhomme sat on the sidewalk outside his K. Paul’s in the French Quarter just to thank people for being in the city.

For those of us who love New Orleans, those were sad days in late 2005. I already could sense the change in the city by the time I left government service in 2009. Young entrepreneurs were flocking to New Orleans by then. They were attracted by the city’s food, music and other aspects of its culture. They also were attracted by the idea of being a part of the rebirth of one of the world’s unique port cities.

For decades, NOLA’s stale, cliquish business leadership had watched as other Southern cities took off — Houston, Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte and others.

New Orleans stagnated. New people and new ideas simply weren’t welcome. In New Orleans, you literally needed to be a member of the club.

In “Rising Tide,” his classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry writes: “As exclusive as the Carnival balls were, membership in the clubs of New Orleans marked the real insiders, for the krewes had a larger membership than the clubs.

“The city’s first club was formed in 1832, four years before New York’s Union Club. In 1842, the Boston Club, named after a card game, was founded, and several men, including Louisiana senators John Slidell and Judah P. Benjamin, subsequently a Confederate cabinet officer and then adviser to Queen Victoria, belonged to both the Boston and Union clubs.

“Then came the Pickwick Club and the Louisiana Club. All were exclusive, but the Louisiana Club has been called the most exclusive club in the country; only members were allowed within its walls.

“In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt visited New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. It was an act of heroism that won the city’s heart — in the preceding century, the disease had killed 175,000 people in Louisiana alone — and the Louisiana Club gave a luncheon in his honor. But before even the president, himself from one of the nation’s grandest families, could enter the club, he had first to be made an honorary member.”

Now, the once inbred business culture of New Orleans pulses with energy.

And Americans are taking note of what’s happening there. In addition to hosting the Final Four, New Orleans hosted college football’s national championship game earlier this year. Next year, the Super Bowl is in what’s now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“New Orleans will be front and center on the world stage for much of the next decade, hosting a series of national and international sporting events,” says James Carville, who has turned into the city’s most high-profile booster. “In 2015, the nation will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. And in 2018, New Orleans’ tricentenary will focus not only on the founding of New Orleans but also its successful rebirth 300 years later.

“You see, the effort to rebuild and recover has been not just an engineering feat to save a city, an entire culture has been at stake. We have our own cuisine, music, architecture, funeral traditions, literature and cultural structure. And as of late, it looks like it will be preserved. More restaurants are in operation than before the hurricane. … As challenging a decade as the 2000s were for New Orleans, the 2010s may prove to be the brightest time in the city’s nearly 300-year history.

“The momentum is building. New Orleans is not just coming back and not just on its way back. New Orleans is storming back.”

The development of the medical corridor, officially known as BioDistrict New Orleans, is among the largest current construction projects in the world. The 1,500-acre district in downtown and Mid-City neighborhoods is expected to create up to 22,000 jobs during the next decade.

The developments in the corridor include:

— The Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Last month, contractors began unloading sand at the construction site to push water out of the ground. That’s the last major step before construction crews start driving piles and putting up buildings. The $995 million project will create 1,100 jobs.

— The University Medical Center. State lawmakers approved funding for the $1.09 billion project in September. The medical center will cover 34 acres and will have the only Level 1 trauma center in south Louisiana. It’s expected to create or save 5,280 jobs during its first five years.

— The Louisiana Cancer Research Center. The 10-story facility is being developed at a cost of $90 million by a consortium that includes the LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane University, Xavier University and Ochsner Health System.

— The New Orleans BioInnovation Center. Completed last June, the $47 million structure houses biotech and life sciences entrepreneurs while supporting research at four area universities. At full capacity, up to 80 start-up companies will call the center home.

Other developments are taking place down the street near the Superdome, as those who attended the recent Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena can tell you.

Last week, the New Orleans Hornets and the state of Louisiana reached an agreement that will keep the NBA club in the New Orleans Arena through 2024 and pump almost $50 million in improvements into the facility. The agreement includes a provision for the NBA to award New Orleans an NBA All-Star Game.

Next door at the Superdome, more than $336 million has been spent since 2006. From January through June of last year, an $85 million renovation expanded the concourse, added restrooms and concession areas, provided two premium clubs at field level for big spenders, added high-speed elevators and put in an additional 3,100 seats.

An outdoor entertainment area known as Champions Square has been built adjacent to the Superdome. Brick pavers, stages, trees and benches have been installed to create a place for concerts, corporate parties and other special events.

The owner of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Benson (at least the NFL can’t suspend an owner), bought the old Dominion Tower in 2009 and has transformed it into the gleaming Benson Tower. Ochsner Health System is relocating 750 employees to the top four floors of the 26-story building, meaning it’s now more than 90 percent leased.

Also in the neighborhood, the Hyatt Regency became the last major New Orleans hotel to reopen last October. It now serves as an anchor for Champions Square and the downtown sports district. The Hyatt Regency renovation cost $275 million.

The reopening of the Hyatt Regency with its 1,193 guest rooms brought the city’s hotel room inventory to almost 36,500 rooms. Prior to Katrina, the city had 39,525 hotel rooms.

Well-known chef John Besh has opened a restaurant named Borgne in the hotel, and it’s receiving rave reviews. If you want a touch of Arkansas, the hotel even has a Whole Hog Cafe.

From the medical corridor to the sports district, there’s construction and progress.

“We’re not going to be like Atlanta or Houston,” says Michael Hecht, the president of the business development group Greater New Orleans Inc. “But in the long run that’s a competitive advantage.”

McCollam writes in the Journal: “In its focus on building a creative economy, New Orleans sees its competition not in buttoned-down regional rivals but in San Francisco, Austin, Boston — other offbeat cities focusing more on home-grown job creation than on Fortune 500 benefactors.”

For once, I find myself in agreement with James Carville. New Orleans is storming back.

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