The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is on the cusp of returning to a major expansion with a new hotel and exhibit hall on long-vacant land in the Lower Garden District, officials said Wednesday morning.
A bill is pending before the state legislature this session that would allow the expansion to begin, making use of vacant land the convention center owns along Tchoupitoulas nearly all the way to the abandoned Market Street Power Plant, convention center president Melvin Rodrigue told the Bureau of Governmental Research.
“We want to put it into commerce,” Rodrigue said. “We want to get it as an attraction for the city of New Orleans.”
Officials are confident about the passage of the funding bill, Rodrigue said, and have already prepared a request for proposals to developers to build the project as a public-private partnership. Many of the details of the project will be worked out during that phase, and depending on the size of the new hotel, the total project could become as much as a $1 billion investment, he said.
“We have two of the top developers in the world calling us on a weekly basis to check in and see what our status is,” Rodrigue said.
Meanwhile, the convention center has already begun traffic studies on another aspect of the project, converting part of Convention Center Boulevard into a linear park running the length of the convention center from Harrah’s Casino to Henderson Street while improving traffic flow onto the surrounding streets. Between the park and the convention center buildings would be room for a “people mover,” to help conference attendees navigate the nearly mile-long facility.
“We think there’s a lot of opportunity to change the streetscape and beautify the buildings, but also make it more user friendly,” Rodrigue said.
This expansion project, known as Stage IV, was first planned prior to Hurricane Katrina, but shelved amid uncertainty of the future of the city, Rodrigue said. The same clients that officials had to beg not to cancel bookings after Katrina, they now have to struggle to find room in the busy schedule for, so the convention center began its current work on Stage IV about two and a half years ago.
Other possibilities for the development plan include a Mardi Gras museum or even a mega-yacht harbor, Rodrigue said. The entire project, Rodrigue said, will make the Mississippi River a more accessible amenity for both tourists and locals alike.
“Though it is our mission to bring visitors to town, we truly believe this project helps open the river up to the residents of the city,” Rodrigue said. “We think the time has come.”
Wednesday morning’s meeting included time for only a brief question-and-answer session, but one resident praised the Lower Garden District plan: Lisa Suarez, a past president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association.
“I love it all the more because it takes the pressure off of us,” Suarez said.
City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said in a recent interview that she has been urging the Convention Center officials to begin meeting with nearby neighborhood groups, to get residents’ input into the shape and scope of the project. She has also begun sharing the information with these groups herself in recent weeks, she said, such as the nearby Coliseum Square Association.