Spectators’ attention will be focused this weekend on NOLA Motorsports’ 3-mile asphalt racetrack for the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana in Avondale, but economic development officials are hoping the event will put a much larger piece of real estate on the radar of visitors and, in some cases, their companies.
The 750-acre racing park developed by Laney Chouest will host an annual stop on the IndyCar Series for at least three years, a run that is estimated to have a total direct economic impact of $100 million.
But NOLA Motorsports also is one of several economic anchors in a mostly undeveloped, 13-square-mile area at the West Bank end of the newly expanded Huey P. Long Bridge — an area that Jefferson Parish officials are betting is ripe for development.
Jerry Bologna, executive director of the Jefferson Economic Development Commission, said that in addition to the visitors drawn from throughout south Louisiana and neighboring states, the race will bring in a slew of representatives of corporate sponsors, from auto-related companies such as Bridgestone and Goodyear to retailers like Target.
“We get to have them as a captured audience for the weekend,” he said.
“It’s bringing a lot of people into an area that has a lot of raw land and space to grow,” agreed Todd Murphy, president of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.
Jefferson Parish has branded the area as Fairfield and, along with the Regional Planning Commission, has begun a planning study in hopes of encouraging and guiding its future growth.
Officials emphasize three strategic advantages for the 8,500-acre area: lots of available land, improved access from the 2013 expansion of the bridge and anchor facilities, including the TPC Louisiana Golf Course, the Churchill Technology & Business Park, the Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, the Alario Center and NOLA Motorsports.
Delgado Community College plans to open a $15 million, maritime industry-oriented River City Campus next year that could bring as many as 3,000 students to the area every week.
Bologna said that while events like the Louisiana Grand Prix highlight NOLA Motorsports’ ability to bring large-scale events to the area, the track’s hosting of smaller events and use as a testing facility for auto industry companies have quietly made it an important player in Fairfield’s nascent economy.
“That facility is a huge spoke in the wheel to the development of that whole area,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot going on on the West Bank, and we’re hoping those types of venues and the expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge will bring some expansion opportunities.”
Bologna said JEDCO recently hosted a visit from representatives of an out-of-state developer of large-scale, mixed-use developments and brought them to Nola Motorsports, among other stops on the Fairfield tour.
It didn’t hurt that they got to meet Indy champion Tony Kanaan while he was there.
“They’re planning to come back for the race and further the discussion about what they might be able to do to spur some development in this area,” Bologna said.
Events like the Grand Prix of Louisiana have the obvious impact of filling hotel rooms and seats at local restaurants, bars and entertainment venues when they occur.
But Terrie Birkel, director of marketing and communications for the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau, said preparations for the race have been drawing sponsors and racing team members to the area for months. “Overall it’s been good, and (hotels) are feeling the impact,” she said.
The race, which is sponsored, in part, by The New Orleans Advocate, will have a festival-type atmosphere for the three-day weekend, with local food vendors and entertainment, along with fan activities, including the facility’s go-cart track.
Officials with NOLA Motorsports could not be reached for comment, but others hope the anticipated fan response and the partnership forged so far between NOLA Motorsports and the Indy Racing League will keep the event here longer than three years.
The response from racers testing the track earlier this year was positive, and Indy Series brass have been optimistic about their outreach and marketing efforts to drum up interest among fans.
With the help of $4.5 million in state funding, the track was improved to make it more race-friendly. Grandstand seating was added to allow spectators to watch the entire race, and additional turns were put in the track to create more moments for the lead to change hands.
Some of the other stops on the tour are done on closed streets, meaning spectators can watch only a portion of the race and speeds don’t go as high as the 170 mph at NOLA Motorsports.
“This is professional racing,” Murphy said. “This is taking it to a whole different level.”
He said professional racing is always looking to broaden its fan base by growing geographically, and the NOLA Motorsports facility’s proximity to New Orleans — always a plus in attracting events — bodes well for the event’s future here.
“It’s like any festival or major event that we’ve had,” he said. “We have the first one, and then you continue to grow it. It seems natural to me that you can then have ancillary services that develop over time.”
This story was changed on April 11, 2015 to remove an incorrect number of estimated spectators at the Grand Prix of Louisiana.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.