A night view of the convention center district in New Orleans.

REPORTING FROM NEW ORLEANS — The $175-million Convention Center District Development project, which will revitalize the area around the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans has the final green light.

Bob Johnson, president and CEO of the convention center, said the plan is to undertake new development on a 47-acre tract owned by the Ernest N. Morial Exhibition Hall Authority and to make significant improvements around Convention Center Blvd. The riverfront site has outstanding possibilities for entertainment district-calibre improvements in the Big Easy.

They are also looking internally. Johnson said clients and vendors will be invited to participate in designing the meeting room of the future as part of the redevelopment. “We will build a prototype in late summer,” he said, envisioning a flex space that is less rectangular-room-with-platform-and-screen and more interactive with technology upgrades that will take it far into the future.

The vision is to bring in a headquarters hotel. New Orleans has the largest convention center in the country without a headquarters hotel, defined as one immediately attached to or directly across the street from the convention center, Johnson said.

And the environment around the convention center needs to be reimagined and rebuilt, he continued. The vision is for a pedestrian parkway, a linear park so to speak, with moving sidewalks and a bicycle path, outdoor dining and restaurants and cafes. That redevelopment of Convention Center Blvd. will be phase one and cost about $35 million, he said.







Bob Johnson, New Orleans Convention Center, tells Jimmy Earl, Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas, about expansion plans in New Orleans during the VT Generation Next party at EAMC in New Orleans. (VT Photo)

On a parallel course will be development of Riverfront Park, which will include demolition of an old event facility on the wharf which houses Mardi Gras World now and was originally a casino. Planners envision performance stages, concessions stands and event space for conventions on the 10 acres now housing Mardi Gras World.

Tulane University owns adjoining riverfront property, and the city and school are talking about some joint use, for instance, an attraction to study the hydrology of the river.

“It will be a new experience for New Orleans,” Johnson said. For its part, the convention center needs to invest $175 million, which comes from three sources: cash reserves, bonding capacity by virtue of the new bill which Johnson expects will go to market in September or October, and state capital appropriations (about $25 million).

This will solve a business problem that has plagued the New Orleans Convention Center – “our hotels are too small and our convention center is too big,” Johnson said. Every competing city is building headquarters hotels, including Boston, Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Austin, Philadelphia and Nashville.

“Ten years ago, there were five or six cities in competition with us. Now there are 20,” Johnson said.

The next step is to identify the right master developer and generate outside investment. The project will involve an estimated $700 million in private investment, which includes construction of the new headquarters hotel on the upriver side of the convention center.

The final piece of the puzzle, which began coming together in mid-2012, came when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed House Bill 788 earlier this month to move forward with the Convention Center District Development.

Everything in New Orleans can be related to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Before the devastation of that catastrophic event, the convention center had scheduled yet another expansion. The bonds for that expansion were defunded in 2007 and original uses for the 47 acres were shelved. “We sold them back so we wouldn’t carry a debt because we were not building a building,” Johnson recalled.

And as it turns out, “we don’t need more exhibit space,” Johnson said of the current climate. The race to add square footage has given way to entertainment districts and hotels to enhance the guest experience. The New Orleans Convention Center has three million square feet under roof and one million square feet of contiguous exhibit space.

Some of the improvements will involve renovation of Hall A with a new front door on Julia Street and new chillers, improvements people can and can’t see.

The original plan had been to improve Convention Center Blvd. before the next Super Bowl in New Orleans, but the bid was lost to Minneapolis, so now the goal is to complete construction before New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday, its tricentennial, in 2018.

Interviewed for this story: Bob Johnson, (504) 582-3001