Since opening three decades ago as the main exhibition hall for the 1984 World’s Fair, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center New Orleans has served as a destination for visitors of all kinds to New Orleans, hosting conferences, trade shows, concerts, music festivals and major sports events.
Despite that long history, or perhaps because of it, tourism industry officials say, the facility has gotten stale. To remain competitive in an increasingly crowded convention market, that has to change, they say.
The convention center needs to expand, again, but not in the same old way.
“We’re trying to create a new experience for people that have been to New Orleans before and that want to come back,” said the center’s general manager, Bob Johnson. “And now they’ve got a lot more choices, so we need to make it hard for them to say no to New Orleans.”
This time, unlike in past expansions, the plan is not to build more exhibit space. The convention center’s governing authority says it needs a hotel and other amenities.
Under legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Bobby Jindal, the authority has been given permission to move forward with a plan to develop a 47-acre tract of vacant land it owns at the center’s upriver end into a hotel and entertainment district and to make changes to the area along Convention Center Boulevard. The convention center proposed basically the same plan during the 2013 legislative session, but the governor vetoed legislation letting the center issue bonds to pay for the enhancements.
The center plans to invest $150 million, a combination of money drawn from reserves, bonds and an appropriation from the state, on improving the civil infrastructure at the vacant site, which stretches along the river from Henderson Street to Market Street.
Johnson said the authority believes that public investment will provide the incentive for private developers to kick in at least $700 million to build a hotel, restaurants, entertainment venues and perhaps apartments on the huge site.
Later this month or early next month, the center will issue a “request for interest” to the development community. The project could be completed by one or several developers, Johnson said.
The proposed project is “the most important growth phase for the development of tourism in New Orleans” since the first phase of the convention center was originally constructed in 1984, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau President Stephen Perry said.
A halt to expansion
For years after it opened, the convention center grew through physical expansion, furiously adding exhibit space and meeting rooms as it stretched farther and farther upriver, more than half a mile in all. With that expansion came mega-meetings — the annual gatherings of, say, 30,000 doctors or librarians — and the ability to hold or prepare for multiple events simultaneously.
Hurricane Katrina and competition from other cities slowed that growth, and as a result, the convention center put its last expansion plan on hold in 2006.
That $450 million Phase IV expansion, as it was known, would have added more than 500,000 square feet of exhibit space to the 1.1 million square feet the center already had. It would have been built on the 47-acre tract now eyed for the hotel and entertainment district.
“We lost a lot of market share because of Katrina, and it was a damaged brand, so the board said let’s take some time to recover,” Johnson said.
Instead of adding a new building, the convention center has sought since then to update and improve the existing structure. The oldest section of the building, which hadn’t been seriously renovated since housing its first convention in 1985, was remodeled in 2012 and reopened in 2013, with an eye toward making the space more attractive to in-demand corporate travelers.
But convention centers the country over, including the Morial Center, are largely loss leaders. Because there are so many of them, they must routinely offer financial incentives and think of other ways to attract business.
Johnson said the number of cities New Orleans bids against for major conventions has grown, in just a few years, from five or six to as many as 25.
“This (proposed hotel-entertainment development) is absolutely critical for us to keep pace with our major competitors around the United States and the work that’s being done in every major convention center,” Perry said. “Without this, we would be in serious danger of falling far behind our most important competitors.”
Expert is skeptical
But convention industry expert Heywood Sanders is skeptical of the plan. He said there’s no edge to be had in building another hotel and a retail and entertainment district because so many other cities are doing the same thing. Similar projects are underway or under consideration in Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Birmingham, Alabama. Sanders said there is no guarantee that the additional attractions would actually translate into more guests.
“If every place, particularly among the bigger places, is doing the same thing, the likelihood of any one of them succeeding is astonishingly small,” said Sanders, whose book “Convention Center Follies” is critical of that industry practice and others. “This is the game everywhere.”
Under the convention center’s “vision plan,” a developer or multiple developers would sign a long-term lease agreement with the center for the property and work with the center to plan a “convention-quality headquarters hotel.” The hotel would have a minimum of 1,000 rooms, like the Sheraton and Marriott hotels on Canal Street. The upriver end of the convention center would connect to the hotel across Henderson Street.
Johnson said the authority sees the project as a way to drum up business for the typically harder-to-sell meeting rooms at the end of the convention center farthest away from the French Quarter and most hotels.
Aside from that general idea, there are few specific plans. Johnson said he’s heard pitches for everything from movie studios to a giant Ferris wheel as attractions for the site.
“We will ferret through those ideas to make sure it’s something unique to New Orleans,” he said. “It can’t be just another suburban mall or something like that.”
The enabling legislation calls the project Phase V, but Johnson said the agency plans to rename it the Convention Center District development.
Another crucial element of the plan is to redevelop Convention Center Boulevard into a more pedestrian-friendly corridor that easily connects people from the Warehouse District to the French Quarter.
“We just need to make this a better environment so that people will enjoy being down there,” Johnson said. “It’s not enjoyable now. It’s horrible. There’s no safe designated areas for pedestrians to cross the street.”
Riverfront park eyed
The convention center’s vision also calls for a riverfront park adjacent to the planned new development. The site for that possible park is owned by Tulane University, and Johnson said the convention center plans to begin talking more seriously with Tulane about whether the park is feasible.
“We threw in a riverfront development as part of our vision, but we can’t overstep our bounds with property that doesn’t belong to us,” he said.
Tulane currently leases the space to Mardi Gras World, which operates tours of its float den at the location and hosts parties and other special events. Mardi Gras World has eight years left on its lease with the university and an option for 10 additional years, company President Barry Kern said.
It is not clear how the Tulane River and Coastal Center, now under construction in the same area along the riverfront and scheduled to open next year, would figure into the new development.
“We are working with the convention center on complementary uses for our properties along the river, but we are in an exploratory phase and have no concrete plans in place other than the construction of the Tulane River and Coastal Center,” said Anthony Lorino, Tulane’s senior vice president for operations and chief financial officer.
Kern said he is on board with any plan for development that makes sense, but he would like for any new plan to include the Mardi Gras World event spaces, which overlook the riverfront and are rented out for special events.
“We’re open to any discussions,” Kern said. “I don’t think that the float (den) attraction necessarily has to be on the river. But in my vision, in the Mardi Gras World vision, the River City Ballroom and the Grand Oaks Mansion remain on the river. But we’re certainly not going to stand in the way.”
As for additional exhibit space, Johnson said there still is not enough demand to warrant building it. But should that change, an area on the land side of Convention Center Boulevard that is being used as a surface parking lot has been tagged as the site for that expansion.
“We will need it in the future,” Johnson said. “But we’ll wait until the time is right.”