Our Views: In New Orleans, this '800-pound gorilla in the room' could wreck tourism _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Police Department investigate a triple shooting with two dead males in the 8200 block of Chef Menteur and the intersection of Dodt Ave in New Orleans, La. Friday, April 15, 2016.

Tourism depends on landscape, and New Orleans is particularly blessed with its distinctive architecture and the preservation of the French Quarter and other older parts of the city. These have paid off enormously for people of the Crescent City and Louisiana for decades. Expansion of Louis Armstrong International will provide even more access for visitors to the region.

But in tourism, perhaps more than in traditional industries, perception can be even more important.

That is why, in the wake of defeat of a city millage proposal for expanding NOPD, the warning last month from the board chairwoman of Greater New Orleans Inc. deserves attention.

“Our crime rate is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Maura Donahue said in March at the regional economic development group’s annual meeting. “Companies do not want to bring their employees to this area to open, to expand or to relocate, unless they can ensure their employees a safe place for themselves and their families.”

She is of course correct about new businesses, but we would argue that this concern is even more pressing for tourism and hospitality.

This industry is a huge employer for the city and for the region, and a great contributor to the tax base of the state and local governments.

Donahue is a Northshore businesswoman who formerly chaired the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She suggested in her talk several ways in which the business community can help, including its espousal of sentencing reforms that could steer nonviolent offenders from long terms in jail.

Amen to that. Jails can provide post-graduate instruction in criminality to the incarcerated.

We applaud the business community for its support of needed reforms, some of them working their way through the Legislature this spring. But those tend to have a positive impact in the long term rather than immediately.

The national attention that is drawn by the slaying of Will Smith, former player for the New Orleans Saints, underscores the city’s image problem. Even as officials report the crime rate overall is down, and Police Superintendent Michael Harrison is reorganizing to put more uniforms on the streets, high-profile crimes are a barrier to our region’s tourism success.

Of course, no killing is good news. For the Baton Rouge area, the deaths of two college students from Southern University in a crossfire the same weekend also attracted the kind of attention we don’t want for the capital city of Louisiana.

But with tourism providing such a great boon for New Orleans, we hope that Donahue’s words will inspire some serious reflection about tackling the crime problem in new ways. The loss of the tax, in a very poor turnout, does not meet the definition of a strong response to this growing concern.