Maura Donahue didn’t mince words in describing what she considers one of the biggest obstacles in New Orleans’ push to bolster its business climate and diversify its tourism-based economy.

“Our crime rate is the 800-pound guerrilla in the room,” Donahue, the chairwoman of Greater New Orleans Inc.’s board of directors, said Thursday 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.”

Donahue pressed the crowd of more than 1,000 business leaders and city officials gathered for the hour-long lunch to focus on ways to reverse what she noted was a spike in violent crime that plagued New Orleans last year. She suggested a few areas of public policy that could potentially improve the city’s current trajectory. That included implementing sentencing reform efforts that could steer nonviolent offenders away from lengthy — and expensive — prison terms.

Her plain-spoken assessment was a brief respite from an otherwise congratulatory series of speakers. The session largely included a recounting of the area’s business wins last year and an assessment of challenges ahead as New Orleans moves well past the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upending the region’s economy.

In fact, the national and international focus on New Orleans’ recovery last year was beneficial for a number of reasons, GNO Inc. President and CEO Michael Hecht told the crowd.

“This was a somber moment for us but also an opportunity that if we told our story in a way that was honest and optimistic, we could tell the world about one of the greatest comeback stories in modern history,” he said.

Now, despite oil’s nearly two-year slump, a downturn that has slowed production and caused thousands of layoffs throughout the state, Hecht said some areas of south Louisiana have been propped up by the tens of billions of dollars worth of industrial expansions that are underway or being considered. Many are along the Mississippi River corridor from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

Hecht noted a few examples, including EuroChem Group AG’s decision to build a $1.5 billion ammonia and urea production plant in St. John the Baptist Parish. He also cited plans by California-based inXile Entertainment and North Carolina-based Smashing Boxes to open local offices in New Orleans, plans that are set to create more than 100 jobs.

As for attracting visitors, Hecht said RES/CON New Orleans, the city’s conference geared toward resiliency and disaster management, drew more than 700 participants to the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center this month.

If a busy airport can be leveraged to attract new businesses, Hecht noted that New Orleans made progress last year with new, diverse flights at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Last year it served almost 10.7 million passengers, the most in its seven-decade history. Hecht cited the addition of Copa Airlines, which started nonstop service between New Orleans and Panama, and New Orleans-based GLO, which offers daily nonstop regional flights across the Gulf Coast, as wins. He hopes those will be followed by landing a nonstop flight to Europe, a longtime goal of the business community.

“We are going to get this flight. It is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.