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New Orleanians Clash on What to Fix First, How

October 23, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — When civic leaders floated the idea this month of allowing corporate sponsorship of Mardi Gras, the public came away with harrowing images of giant, inflated beer cans and potato chip bags supplanting mystical sea dragons and gods.

What the officials had in mind was far more limited: allowing corporations to underwrite security and sanitation costs in exchange for minimal exposure -- a small sign, perhaps, or a mention in a press release. Even that was over the top for some, and by Friday, some of the same people who had pressed for limited corporate involvement were backing off.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina raked New Orleans, the city continues to stagger. There are about 85,000 people here, and although the destruction has sparked a temporary boom for roofers, debris haulers and the like, normal commerce is sluggish in the areas most spared, and nonexistent elsewhere.

Targeting the city's best-known institutions, including Mardi Gras, the Superdome and the French Quarter, officials are trying to take the first steps toward resuscitating the city. At every turn, however, they are running into skeptics who call the measures hasty and reckless, revealing an underlying debate over the strategy of rebuilding that probably will endure well into next year.

Each proposal represents an attempt to provide the metropolitan area with a quick infusion of cash and energy. Each time, a chorus of voices pushes back, urging a more cautious response, one that protects residents and tradition, even if it means delaying or eliminating opportunities to make New Orleans a viable city again.

Neither side is wrong, said City Council Member Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson.

"Look, there is no rule book for this," she said in her office on the second floor of City Hall, where mementos of simpler times -- pictures of Little League teams she sponsored, flags from military bases in her district -- still hang on the wall.

Clarkson pointed toward the large window next to her desk. Outside, while there are many signs of life, abandoned cars still pepper the streets of the business district. Streetlights are still out at many major intersections. Residential streets are lined with discarded refrigerators, thousands of them wrapped in duct tape to keep their rotting contents contained.

"New Orleans is a living example of the balance between historic and progressive, and we have to have regard for that. That's how we have to rebuild, with that same balance. That's what this is all about."

It is a difficult balance to strike, however, as the city is discovering with some regularity.

State officials, for example, ordered bureaucrats to fast-track a $135-million restoration of the badly damaged Superdome, where more than 25,000 people lived in squalid conditions after Katrina.

The arena, which is in the business district, has long been a centerpiece of civic life in New Orleans, and in its 30 years has been home to hundreds of high-profile events and a crucial cog in the city's tourism economy, which was worth $5 billion last year. It is home, for instance, to the Sugar Bowl, a college football bowl game that injects about $200 million into the economy. New Orleans has also played host to nine Super Bowls, more than any other city.

Desperate for a cash infusion, state officials are trying to get the Dome opened as soon as possible.

Tim Coulon, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, which is responsible for the Dome and the adjacent New Orleans Arena, said the costs associated with repairs probably would rise as work continued. But he said the stadium could be ready -- largely because of the fast-tracked improvement plan, including a two-day turnaround on bids for an architecture firm -- to host college football next fall.

Even as the bids were being posted, however, critics were lashing out.

Some residents don't believe the Superdome should be rebuilt at all; they believe it will be a painful reminder of the city's darkest days and should be torn down. Others say the $135 million should be used for something other than a sports arena -- helping small businesses reopen, for example, or helping displaced families return to the city.

"We weren't a tourism destination because of the Superdome," Clarkson said. "We were a tourism destination because of our architecture, our food, our culture, our music, our heritage. You have to weigh the investment against the return. What do we need first to bring tourism back? Do we need, for example, every restaurant in the city back open? Or do we need the Superdome?"

Coulon said he continued to believe the Superdome's opening would bring great symbolic and financial benefits. But he said he took the criticism to heart.

"I am a resident too," he said. "I understand the need for us to be very conscious of those people who are still in shelters, with housing issues and other issues. I don't look at the two in conflict -- but I certainly sympathize with those who might."

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