Convention center officials take expansion step

The Morial Convention Center moved a bit closer to a huge expansion.

Its board has now put out a call for developers to spearhead a $1 billion  program involving hotels, stores and riverfront access. The local tourism industry is entering into it's pre-Essence summer slump and cab drivers sit and wait.

"We need more business, more people, and that would keep us busy," said cab driver Jorge Escobar.

But a proposal to revamp the convention center area, particularly the 47 acres on the Uptown side, could make things a bit busier.

"It's the next big thing for tourism and economic development in the city of New Orleans," said Melvin Rodrigue, the chairman of the Morial Convention Center Board.

Thanks to recently passed legislation, convention center officials have just put out a call for developers to transform vacant property between Henderson and Orange streets.

Their goal is to sell $145 million in bonds, to pay for everything from people movers, to infrastructure needed for upscale new stores, and a major new convention center hotel.

"We want it to be as big as we can get it," said Rodrigue.

In their push to open access to the river and build a Woldenberg style park complete with entertainment stages, convention center officials are also looking to relocate Mardi Gras World, which is currently on property leased to Tulane university.

"We've talked to them about relocating that and developing a first class Mardi Gras museum," said convention center president Bob Johnson.

The developer will also look into building of a new conference center, that unlike the rest of the convention center, would have windows to give conventioneers a view of the river.

"The more opportunity we give them to do that, the more we can sell this location," said Rodrigue.

Originally, there was some discussion about light rail on Convention Center Blvd. Although that hasn't been ruled out, officials are looking at other options.

"A horizontal escalator would provide relief from the long trek," said Johnson.

New accessways for cabbies would also be provided as part of a revamped Convention Center Boulevard that would be transformed into a Linear Park.

"One of the first components is to redo the streetscape of Convention Center Boulevard," said Rodrigue.

If all goes well, construction could begin in two years.

"If we have more events, we will be busier. We won't be sitting around like we are right now, said cabbie Escobar.

And convention center officials hope it will open up an entirely new area for tourism upriver of the Crescent City Connection.

The convention center expansion plan also calls for a revamped entryway on the Henderson Street side.

As for Tulane, which owns much of the riverfront property, the convention center hopes to purchase, a spokesman Mike Strecker says  they are engaged in talks regarding their riverfront property, but the university says it remains committed to building  the Tulane River and Coastal Center, a 6,000 square foot building that will house laboratories devoted to the study of the river and the coastal area it sustains. In addition to research, the Center will also offer opportunities for graduate education and certification in river-related studies. Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker says construction will begin at the end of the summer. The Center is scheduled to open in the spring of 2015 museum near the convention center expansion site.

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