May 262014
 

Owen Courreges

A common practice amongst subordinates is to intentionally include extraneous steps in a plan to give a meddling boss something to change.  This way, the plan remains exactly the same, but the boss feels as though he’s made a contribution and the subordinate can point out that he compromised.  It goes like this:

PEON:   Here’s what my plan is: We’ll design the product, build a prototype, dispose of toxic waste in the executive washroom, and then launch the product.

BOSS:    Whoa! That third step is a problem. I don’t think we should dispose of toxic waste in the executive washroom.  That could harm our corporate executives.

PEON:   Hmmm… I’m still not sure about abandoning Step 3, but I see what you’re saying and value your guidance.  I’ll scrap Step 3.

BOSS:    Great!  Let’s move forward.

It was this kind of scenario that comes to mind when the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center makes its pitch to expand its facilities into the Lower Garden District as part of a public/private partnership.

I understand why the convention center is expanding; New Orleans is a major destination for conventions, and the Convention Center has lost ground with other cities in terms of raw square footage.  Right now, it’s tied for sixth with the Kentucky Exposition Center, lagging behind heavy-hitters Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta and Orange County.

Likewise, this is the perfect window for expansion.  Mardi Gras World reopened a few years ago on the west side of the Convention Center, and the Market Street Power Plant has not been utilized.  Between, there’s plenty of open space that is ripe for development.

However, nobody wants to start handing out blank checks, and the Convention Center’s plans include a couple of… well… curious projects.

First of all, officials are asking to close part of Convention Center Boulevard.  The scheme would involve turning a portion of Convention Center Boulevard into a linear park with a people mover for transporting conventioneers.  Neighboring streets would also be reworked.

Naturally, this is a terrible idea.  Convention Center Boulevard is a major thoroughfare; its loss could not be ameliorated merely by tweaking parallel streets.  The addition of a people mover is even more ridiculous.  The Riverfront Streetcar was primarily installed to service the Convention Center – riders can’t even access the streetcar except via the convention center for a substantial portion of its run.  A people mover would simply be redundant.

Worse, a people mover would invite comparison to the notorious Detroit People Mover, described by Business Insider as “a unique light rail system in downtown Detroit that hardly anyone uses.”

Secondly, officials are considering – and I’m quite serious about this – a “mega-yacht harbor.”  A public/private venture should not be envisioning an amenity that could only serve the most wealthy persons.  While I’m sure there are some conventioneers who desperately need a berth for their obscenely-sized yachts, I don’t want taxpayer dollars anywhere near the damn thing.

Accordingly, if I didn’t know any better, I would suspect that the Convention Center is intentionally overplaying its hand as a convenient distraction to ensure that its primary expansion plans sail through.  The public gets to feel as if a potentially grandiose project was restrained, while the Convention Center gets the expansion that it wanted all along.

Of course, I could be wrong about this.  The simplest explanation is that officials are simply letting their imaginations run wild with planning, as they are wont to do.  Simple explanations are usually true.

Still, I would prefer to imagine that on some internal memorandum, buried deep in the filing cabinet of some functionary, the following colloquy is posited:

CONVENTION CENTER:  Here’s the plan: We expand the convention center, return land to commerce, and preserve the Market Street Power Plant.  We’ll also raze Convention Center Boulevard and construct a people mover and a mega-yacht harbor.

NEW ORLEANS:                  What?!  I was with you until you started talking about destroying Convention Center Boulevard and building a people mover and a harbor for gigantic yachts!

CONVENTION CENTER:  Ok, ok. I really want to destroy a major boulevard, and I’m also really bullish on people movers and huge boats for rich people, but I understand that this going to be a compromise.  I guess I can nix those parts of the plan.

NEW ORLEANS:                  All right then, let’s build this thing!

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

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  • H. J. Bosworth JR.

    Good Article Owen,

    Glad to see someone watching and reading absurd proposals of this Convention Bureau. I am sure there may be traffic engineers that should study the downtown / Con. Center traffic issues. But are they capable of being an independent and trusted voice and making reasonable recommendations? And were there any financial evaluations by the port – of the financial practicality & ROI of the construction a mega-yacht berth/dock?

    • Owen Courrèges

      HJ,

      That’s really the issue. Even if a traffic study winds up saying: “we can chop up Convention Center Boulevard at minimal expense and with no serious traffic impact,” I just flat out wouldn’t believe it. When a project doesn’t even pass the smell test (and all of this sounds pretty ridiculous), you just can’t trust their studies or their experts.

  • BobB

    Exactly. Tom Benson has a huge yacht. I’m sure out of control ships and barges couldn’t possibly damage that fantasy harbor.

  • Cannibal Special

    New Orleans already has a yacht harbor – admittedly intended for the middle class, not mega-yachts – which has sat, condemned and untouched, for NINE YEARS since Katrina. How about we get our existing amenities back into commerce before funding new ones?

  • Craig

    I wonder if the “people mover” was proposed due to the lack of air conditioning on the Riverfront street car? Perhaps the compromise can be that the streetcar gets an A/C unit. Otherwise, those conventioners can just burn a few calories.

    Spot on about the yacht harbor. I hope you’re right that it was just a bargaining chip.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Craig,

      If that was the only reason for the people mover proposal, it’s a pretty lousy reason. As you note, they could just install a/c on the streetcars, and given that the streetcars get a good breeze going through them anyway, a/c really isn’t essential anyway. To the extent the Riverfront Streetcar is inadequate, they could have proposed extending the line, adding additional cars, or adding additional stops. Putting in a whole new transit line strikes me as insane.

  • Owen Courrèges

    Ronald,

    I’m not reserving judgment; Convention Center Boulevard is already heavily utilized in all respects. Cutting lanes for any purpose will hinder mobility. It would also be extremely expensive to tear up the entire road and bury or relocate high-tension wires. Do you honestly think that sounds like an effective or necessary use of public funds?

    We also just flat-out don’t need a people mover – we already have the Riverfront Streetcar. I haven’t heard any argument as to how that wouldn’t be wasteful and redundant.

    I think I know enough information right now to give this a resounding thumbs down. Leave Convention Center Boulevard as it is. If we’re going to do anything with our streets, we need to REPAVE THEM.

  • Samuel Berman

    First, let me say as a disclaimer – I do not own a yacht, am not amongst the super wealthy, and do not want a yacht if I were to become super wealthy. However, I did grow up working on these kind of boats during summers, so I know a thing or two. I do not think we should dismiss the yacht dock idea as a concoction of public officials to spend money for the super wealthy. Here a couple of reasons why I think it SHOULD be considered (please also note that I have no knowledge of the project, its costs, or future maintenance costs):

    1) The fee associated with docking such ships is astronomical and, during peak periods, should make even the most rich blush. For example, according to Forbes the average nightly rate for docking fees is between $3000-5000 per night. During peak times (like Mardi Gras or Jazz fest, for example) it can be as high as $100,000 for the weekend. Pretty good amount of potential revenue per bay. If you could turn $300,000-450,000 per year per docking bay, I would have to imagine it would be worth it and would exceed operating costs.

    2) These ships always require servicing and fuel when they come into port. These services are not cheap and would support a marine service industry that we already have in New Orleans. Furthermore, think of all the taxes we would make on parts and fuel sales (lots and lot of fuel is required by these boats). According to business insider, mega yacht owners should expect to spend $1 million per year servicing their boat (fuel, crew, maintenance). New Orleans can capture some of that industry. There is a lot of opportunity to “up charge” for required services in addition to dock fees.

    3) Expansion of the tourism base: uber wealthy people spend money, pure and simple. The also usually travel with an entourage (wife, kids, friends, etc) and these boats usually come with a full crew of between 4-10 (depending on the boat). All people who need to eat and shop and go to shows, etc. Furthermore, while New Orleans has done an excellent job capturing tourists in the middle and upper middle classes, it has done a lousy job capturing a share of the uber wealthy class (partially due to a lack of downtown retail shopping, which is changing). Opening this up – in conjunction with the lake view airport – will help attract that class of tourist to our city. Right now we get beaten out by NYC, Miami, the Caribbean and San Fran/LA for those tourists and their money. We have all the tools to compete if we want.

    In conclusion, i think that the yacht idea SHOULD NOT be quickly dismissed. Rather it should undergo a rigorous economic feasibility test and it should be considered what it can produce in immediate revenues as well as multiplier effects on other industries (marine maintenance, fuel supply, etc). It could actually end up being a good thing if we don’t just say “oh look public dollars being spent on the rich”.

    Rich people have money. New Orleans tourism is based around separating such people from their money. Let’s let them do exactly that.

    My apologies for any typos.