One would have to go all the way back to John McKeithen's push to build the Superdome to find a legislative session -- and a governor -- that produced as much economic impact for New Orleans in such a short period of time as Gov. Mike Foster and state lawmakers just did.
Our city owes them a big debt of thanks.
In the mid-1960s, then-Gov. McKeithen campaigned statewide to secure voter approval of a constitutional amendment cementing the Superdome's financing and construction. Later, construction costs mounted and allegations of scandal surfaced, but McKeithen put his popularity and credibility on the line to make the Superdome a reality. The dome ultimately opened to rave reviews in 1975.
For the next 15 years, the Superdome was hailed as the economic engine that kept New Orleans' downtown from deteriorating the way so many other urban business districts did during the 1970s and '80s. Poydras Street blossomed as the new corridor of money and power in New Orleans. Our city was fortunate in that our downtown may have suffered minor setbacks here and there, but it never lost its fundamental appeal to locals and visitors alike. Few U.S. cities were so blessed.
In the 1990s, the Morial Convention Center picked up where the Superdome left off. The 1984 World's Fair, despite being a short-term financial failure, nonetheless jump-started the revitalization of the Warehouse/Arts District, helped open the riverfront to commercial and residential development, and launched the Convention Center as the fair's Louisiana Pavilion. Since then, two major expansions have made the Morial center one of the top convention sites in the country. No other single parcel in the state -- and that includes the Oil Patch -- generates so much money for Louisiana as does the convention center. Its continued expansion, designed to keep pace with burgeoning demand through and beyond 2015, is considered a must by the local hospitality industry.
It was fitting, therefore, that the centerpiece of Foster's budding economic development program tie the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center together -- along with the New Orleans Arena, which in many ways is a sibling of the dome. Despite some preliminary saber-rattling by a few rural lawmakers, Foster's plan to keep the Saints in the dome, bring the NBA Hornets to the Arena, and finance Phase IV of the convention center sailed relatively easily through both houses with no significant changes.
One key to its passage is the fact that the money to pay for all three parts of the plan will come from an increase in the hotel-motel tax in New Orleans -- not from the state general fund. The hospitality industry deserves credit for stepping up to the plate and agreeing to the added tax, even though significant portions of its proceeds will not go toward the convention center. Local lawmakers likewise merit praise for working across party and parish lines in support of the plan.
Foster deserves applause for recognizing the economic importance of New Orleans to the rest of the state, and for putting his political capital on the line to bolster the city's (and through it, the state's) economy. Foster's chief of staff Steve Perry is a co-architect of the plan. Perry played a crucial role as lead negotiator for the state during the delicate phases of the Saints and Hornets deals.
It's well established that Foster is disengaged from the day-to-day affairs of running the state. In this case, at least, Perry filled the void admirably. Moreover, Foster weighed in when he was needed most, by providing the political muscle to secure legislative passage of the plan that Perry and local lawmakers had hammered out.
We can only hope that the NBA Board of Governors will have as easy a time approving the Hornets move to New Orleans later this month.