From an economic development standpoint, among the most important buildings owned by the City of New Orleans is a campus nestled in the center of Kenner.
The campus, is, of course, the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. It is the gateway through which most of the region’s eight million plus visitors annually arrive and it will be phenomenally busy during Super Bowl week in 2013.
Unfortunately, Armstrong International has had a checkered past. Many previous New Orleans mayors used it as a tool of patronage. While Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston were building super airports, the New Orleans airport was on a tract too small to be super. In addition, Kenner was not always a happy host. Fifty years ago, a Kenner mayor called the airport a “cancer.” Ten years ago, a former Kenner police chief said the airport should be “burned down.” A series of Kenner mayors fought plans for expansion of the airport and a series of New Orleans mayors and airport directors looked down on Kenner public officials and citizens. But that was then.
Now, peace reigns in Kenner and $356 million of improvements are underway. Included in what’s coming is a new car rental facility that will be one-stop and eliminate the need for shuttle buses to bring you to your rental car. Also coming is a Perlis’ clothing store, a Dooky Chase restaurant, a Zatarain’s restaurant, a Saints’ store, Ye Olde College Inn and an Abita Beer outlet.
The princes of airport peace are Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad. Ahmad, who came here from Dayton, Ohio about three years ago, has treated Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni, the Kenner Council and business leadership like respected and admired guests. Kenner, which like many U.S. towns has crushing financial problems brought on by the current national and local recession, now appears to see the airport not as an interloper but a cash cow that is helping Kenner’s growing tourism industry – including hotels, motels, the Pontchartrain Center, the Treasure Chest Casino and restaurants – get bigger.
Ahmad and Mayor Landrieu are very conscious that Armstrong International are keenly aware that the passenger volume here differs greatly from Houston, Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth. The local airport has never topped a passenger volume goal of 10 million. Ahmad hopes to cross that barrier in 2014 and never look back. He notes that before Hurricane Katrina, Armstrong International was America’s 40th largest airport. After Katrina, the airport fell to 56th in the national rankings and now – under Landrieu and Ahmad – is back to 40th.
Local tourism gurus have high hopes for the airport. They want to increase the number of visitors from 8 million in 2011 to 13 million by 2015. To achieve that goal, the airport will have to get bigger and it will need Kenner’s approval to do so. Ahmad thinks that is possible today. He and his staff, with the support of Kenner and Jefferson Parish officials are working on a proposed plan for a gleaming, big new terminal at Armstrong International that – if approved by Landrieu. the New Orleans City Council, the metro tourism establishment, the regional legislative delegation and various other power brokers – would catapult the Metro New Orleans tourism picture into a big-time show with an annual flood of visitors whose needs would create thousands of new jobs not just in New Orleans but throughout the region.
Ahmad isn’t a fellow who dreams lightly or small. In his dream, Landrieu, Yenni and Jefferson Parish President John Young are standing side by side, holding a color rendering of the new terminal while announcing their united support for the project.
“If you don’t dream of accomplishing the fantastic, then you never will,” says Ahmad. “I think the goal of a new, modern, acclaimed Armstrong International airport in Kenner, with the support of Kenner and Jefferson Parish is achievable. If we are to achieve the goal of 13 million tourists by 2015, the new airport is essential. Why shouldn’t Metro New Orleans have a great airport? We are a great destination with a far greater capacity for visitors than what we have been able to achieve. Let’s give the world a great airport that is a reflection of our cultural greatness.”
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board and the Eric Strachan campaign, and among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. Robert Billiot.