The yearlong effort of business and civic leaders across southeast Louisiana to assemble a regional economic engine centered on Armstrong International Airport presents Mayor Ray Nagin with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that few mayors ever get to see.
The effort has been dubbed "Global New Orleans," although it could more aptly be described as a "global triangle" anchored by Baton Rouge, the Northshore and New Orleans. It harnesses all the key economic drivers for southeast Louisiana: interstate highways, an international airport ripe for expansion, rail lines, the Mississippi River, one of the world's largest port systems (just in time for the Panama Canal expansion), and one of the world's most beloved and culturally enriched cities.
In short, it would provide the "jump start" or "tipping point" to post-Katrina recovery efforts that Nagin has long promised.
The key element at the outset is getting Armstrong International Airport into the state's hands, which is where Nagin comes in. The city-owned airport has been a source of mayoral patronage for more than half a century, and mayors have jealously resisted past efforts to wrest control of it. In progressive communities, however, airports are either state owned or operated by regional boards beyond municipal (read: political) control. In such communities, airports drive regional economies.
Nagin has every reason to say "yes" to Global New Orleans. In return for the airport, the state will pump $500 million into the city's redevelopment efforts in the form of money for riverfront redevelopment, a new City Hall and state office complex (inside a renovated Dominion Tower), exciting public space around a further-renovated Superdome, money for the LSU-VA Hospital project and infrastructure for the Broadway South initiative all of which Nagin already supports. That money, which would leverage billions more in federal and private investment, would generate millions more in state and local taxes, so the plan makes sense from the state's point of view as well.
The only question is, does Nagin have the vision, the courage and the political maturity to say "yes" to Global New Orleans?
We'll know soon enough.
What we do know is that the city and region are uniquely situated right now to pull it off. We have the political leadership in place a governor who "gets it," a House speaker from the city who understands big-time finance and who is sponsoring the enabling legislation, a Senate president from the River Parishes who likewise understands the significance of the city and the river, and a regional legislative delegation with enough clout to pass the speaker's bill.
Equally important, the effort has united local business and civic leaders with their counterparts in Baton Rouge and on the Northshore, making this the kind of "market-driven" recovery project that Nagin always said would propel the city's comeback.
Lining up all those planets has not been easy, and they won't stay aligned forever. Nagin's window of opportunity is very small. House Speaker Jim Tucker has to get his bill moving in the next few weeks. The state isn't even asking for the airport. Gov. Bobby Jindal will have to be convinced to take it so it's not as if Nagin has a lot of leverage in this deal.
Hizzoner already has been briefed on the initiative, and he has asked for money for a distribution center in eastern New Orleans. My sources say that is in the works, but otherwise this deal is already as sweet as it's gonna get.
I can't imagine who might be advising Nagin to proceed cautiously on this. So many people who know a lot more than anybody close to Nagin have already worked a year or more on the plan. All he has to do is say "yes" and then not get in the way. Moreover, in 20 years, everybody will say what a genius he was. He'll have the biggest mayoral legacy since Bienville. This deal is that big.
If ever there were a litmus test of whether Ray Nagin understands what his job is as mayor, this is it. Can he just say yes?