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Nagin's Defining Promise

After one year in office, Ray Nagin has brought hope back to New Orleans.

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Mayor Ray Nagin last week picked the scene of one of the largest nonfatal arson fires in U.S. history to deliver a message of "hope and prosperity" in his first State of the City address. When MacFrugal's $60 million warehouse in eastern New Orleans went up in flames seven years ago, the city lost 130 jobs and a corporate building block for its struggling economy.

"But today, we are reclaiming the site in the name of hope and prosperity, with the help of Crescent Crown Distributing," Nagin told the crowd assembled on the foundation of the locally owned beer distributor's new $16.5 million warehouse. Crescent Crown will bring 250 jobs to New Orleans. Nagin announced the distributor's plans days after taking office one year ago, so it was fitting that he chose to look back at his first year as mayor -- and ahead to the next three -- at the Crescent Crown site.

Before Nagin took office, we urged him to keep the "defining promise" of his campaign -- to bring good jobs to town, to clean up the process of awarding contracts, and to turn Armstrong Airport from a patronage trough into a performing asset ("Great Expectations," April 9, 2002). We're happy to report that, in almost all respects, Nagin has kept his promise.

Our business climate was deplorable when Nagin took office, largely because of our reputation for political corruption. Nagin has done a lot in just one year to change that. "The perception that you have to do business 'under the table' if you want to do business in New Orleans has faded," Nagin said. "No tipping is necessary in the great city of New Orleans to get things done."

In addition to the Crescent Crown plant, Planet Smoothie is relocating from Atlanta to New Orleans, and Six Flags is pumping more than $20 million in improvements into its theme park in eastern New Orleans. Nagin also negotiated a five-year, incentive-rich contract with Essence Festival. He will use that contract as a model to attract other major events. He also has placed a special -- and long-overdue -- emphasis on growing the city's music industry. For example, the city sponsors monthly workshops to give musicians key business skills.

Equally important, Nagin is transforming the controversial Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program from one that rewards the mayor's pals to one that fosters real partnerships between minority businesses and majority-owned firms. A prime example is the 50-50 partnership between Bank One and Liberty Bank & Trust, a venture that has helped make Liberty one of the top five black-owned banks in the nation.

Meanwhile, cleaning up corruption has become the defining promise of Nagin's first year in office. The vaunted corruption crackdown of last summer fizzled in state courts, but the U.S. Attorney's office currently has more than a dozen investigations into dealings at the airport, the Regional Transit Authority and other entities -- largely as a result of Nagin's anti-corruption zeal. While Nagin still has a learning curve in government, his offensives against "business as usual" show he is no longer a political neophyte.

Nagin's background as a private sector executive was his biggest asset as a candidate for mayor, and he has brought a businesslike approach to the task of solving public sector problems. When he took office, Nagin said last week, "The city Finance Department was in shambles." The city had just two days of cash reserves while facing a projected budget deficit of at least $25 million. Checks to the city were stuffed in desks. His team found $15 million in possible spending irregularities of federal grant monies as well as suspicious contracts to politically connected vendors. There also was a $100 million backlog of public works projects.

Undaunted, Nagin implemented most of the recommendations of a financial study funded by business groups. The administration then balanced the budget and ended the year $8 million in the black. Nagin surprised skeptics by proposing across-the-board pay raises for city workers, including police. So far, his administration has filled nearly 50,000 potholes, and he pledged to spend at least $50 million a year for the next three years on street improvements.

He also kept his promise to bring technology to City Hall. Greg Meffert, the city's first chief technology officer, has revamped the city's Web site. Citizens can now apply for business licenses, pay traffic tickets and report potholes online.

Finally, we are pleased with the level of competence that we see in this administration -- despite the miscues surrounding the ouster of Nagin's first chief administrative officer. Nagin has hired, promoted or retained a cadre of skilled professionals. He wisely used the occasion of his speech last week to give a vote of confidence to Police Chief Eddie Compass, who is clearly on the hot seat during the current wave of murders. Compass deserves everyone's confidence -- and he needs everyone's cooperation -- to get the job done.

After one year in office, Ray Nagin has brought hope back to New Orleans. Considering where we've been, that's the best gift any mayor could give to this town.

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