Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

The New Orleans marketing challenge



One of the state's more dynamic marketing efforts in recent years came courtesy of the BP oil disaster. In the wake of the gusher in 2010, the energy giant provided $30 million in tourism funds to the state, which the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT) transformed into media buys, grants to parishes and high-profile events.

  It should come as no surprise that much of it highlighted New Orleans or displayed a few of the city's iconic images.

  While a large chunk of change was spent convincing the rest of the nation that south Louisiana wasn't awash in oil and shuttered to visitors, it also helped prop up a tourism budget that was being depleted not only by economic trends, but also the budget practices of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

  "The BP money has been a great salvation for us," said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who oversees CRT. "But that money is virtually entirely gone." He added that the last cent will be spent by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. "We're down to a few hundred thousand," he said.

  The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board received roughly the same amount from BP. But guess what? "Their money is running out as well," Dardenne said, referring to a kitty that stands at just $8 million now with about $2 million fully committed.

  Moving forward, Dardenne is battling Jindal to create a long-term marketing plan that can flourish post-BP settlement. Alas, as with all things Jindal, it's not proving to be an easy task — and New Orleans is at the heart of the debate.

  In yet another round of fiscal trickery, Jindal's administration is using nearly $4 million worth of so-called pass-throughs in its latest budget proposal — to fund special events using money diverted from the Office of Tourism. The problem is that even though the events are promoted by Dardenne's CRT, the lieutenant governor cannot change the individual budgeted amounts. "I felt all along this office ought to have the discretion to decide which events warrant funding and which don't," Dardenne said.

  Some lawmakers believe the governor's allocations are too low. His proposed budget dedicates $948,000 to the Essence Music Festival. When Dardenne explained the situation last week to the House Appropriations Committee (where the Legislature's budget hearings begin), state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, complained that it "doesn't make sense," noting the Essence Music Festival has an economic impact in the neighborhood of $200 million.

  As a workaround, Dardenne said he is using some of the remaining dollars from the Office of Tourism's self-generated revenues to help underwrite the needs he has identified. In all, Dardenne is pulling about $1.3 million out of his office's account to help fund other priorities he contends the administration has overlooked.

  If he had more control over the money in his office's account, Dardenne said, he could start advertising more in other states and bolster the events that produce the biggest returns for Louisiana. With a few exceptions, those events take place in New Orleans.

  Leger said he is drafting legislation to create a "special events fund to help us be more competitive." Noting major events such as the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Game, Dardenne recommended that Leger make the fund specific to New Orleans.

  It's unknown what Leger has in mind — he said his bill is still being drafted — but a cut of sales taxes dedicated to CRT have been used in the past to lure events to New Orleans as well as other parts of the state. New Orleans-area lawmakers have tried to create that fund in previous sessions, but the idea has never caught fire, due in no small part to other areas of the state wanting their piece of the pie.

  Looking ahead, something has to give. The BP money is quickly running out and other Gulf states are increasing their tourism budgets, while Louisiana is doing the opposite. During the 2010-2011 fiscal year, CRT's total budget was $93 million. That fell to $91 million for the current fiscal year and stands at $86 million in Jindal's latest proposed budget.

  Maybe if Dardenne wins his bid for governor in 2015, he'll do something about the downward trend. For now, the control belongs to Jindal, who certainly wouldn't hold back the bank if it meant promoting himself and his national ambitions.

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