In her first solo recording in 1937, New Orleans' own Mahalia Jackson sang, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares." Today, New Orleans needs someone to separate wheat from tares in the city's slapdash plan -- if one could even call it a plan -- to restore the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts. Hurricane Katrina inflicted significant wind and flood damage at "the Mahalia" as well as at the neighboring Municipal Auditorium, and more than 10 months later efforts to restore both buildings are bogged down in administrative red tape. That is inexcusable.
Both buildings are vital to the cultural revitalization of the city -- particularly the Mahalia, as it makes an ideal venue for performances by the New Orleans Opera Association, the New Orleans Ballet Association, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and a wide variety of community and faith-based groups. Local arts organizations are eager but struggling to participate in the city's nascent recovery, but to do so they need a full-size professional venue like the Mahalia. Sadly, the city seems to be doing all it can to slow down the recovery process at the Mahalia, which sustained far less damage than the auditorium and which could have been put on the road to reopening quickly and relatively cheaply.
In our cover story last week ("Off Pointe," July 4), arts and entertainment editor Will Coviello documented how SMG Management, the company that manages both the Mahalia and the auditorium -- as well as the Superdome and the Arena -- was fired by the Nagin Administration even though it offered to work for free -- and to front money needed to get repairs going at the Mahalia. According to SMG regional vice president Doug Thornton, the Mahalia could have had power restored for a mere $35,000. Restoring power is a major first step in bringing back any building because it allows contractors to turn on the lights and air conditioning -- and thereby properly assess the level of damages, start the drying process after a flood and prevent mold from returning. Both buildings were gutted by early December, but without the dehumidifying effects of air-conditioning, they are likely to deteriorate further in New Orleans' hot, humid climate. Since December, the city has done practically nothing to advance the rehabilitation of the Mahalia and the auditorium, which comprise New Orleans' cultural arts center in Louis Armstrong Park.
Thornton and officials from local arts organizations devised a plan to get the Mahalia up and running by November -- an aggressive but attainable goal that would have jump-started the city's cultural revival and sent a tremendous positive signal to the world that New Orleans is on the way back. Thornton's proposal called for a "provisional" opening of the Mahalia in as little as 120 days at a cost of approximately $400,000. This would have meant no carpeting and no hydraulic lift for the orchestra pit (which hadn't worked in years anyway), but the most important elements -- electricity, air conditioning, seating, lighting and staging -- would have been in place. In addition, other repairs could have been planned and the buildings would have been spared further deterioration. Instead, the Nagin Administration claimed it wanted to do a full-scale renovation, which could take years and cost millions -- much of which will not be reimbursed by FEMA. Citing a budget crunch, the city also terminated SMG's contract, even though the company offered to continue working for free to help get the recovery process going.
In some respects, that recovery process is farther behind now than it was in December. At least then the city had a professional management company in place for the Mahalia and the auditorium. Now it says it has $1.1 million to start repairs, but it has not shared a renovation plan with any of the players who would benefit from a refurbished theater or help make it happen. Moreover, given the advantages that an experienced, professional management company brings to the task of soliciting and evaluating bids, this is not the best time to start looking for a new manager. The city also has announced no timetable for putting either building back into service. One estimate pegged the renovation period at 18 months from the official start date, but even that seems optimistic in light of the Nagin Administration's recent foot-dragging. Meanwhile, the city's cultural arts organizations make do in venues that require them to compromise the scale of their performances. This was understandable, and certainly tolerable, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, but it is totally unacceptable in light of SMG's and others' offers to restore the Mahalia to a sufficient level of use by November.
The current "plan" is a closing act that will stifle New Orleans' cultural rebirth, whereas the logic of fixing the Mahalia in stages, so that it can come back into use sooner, is overwhelming. Renovation is far cheaper than constructing a new facility or overhauling it completely -- particularly when FEMA will pay 90 percent of restoration costs.
The Mahalia suits performing arts organizations perfectly and allows them to stage or book full-scale professional productions. The city will benefit greatly if cultural organizations can get back to normal instead of continuing to tread water. Above all, investing soon in New Orleans' artistic rebirth will pay dividends far beyond the coming cultural season. We urge the Nagin Administration to reconsider its course and to fast track the Mahalia's reopening.