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Cornerstones of Economy

How 50 years changed a street and New Orleans business

For decades it was a downtown roadway without much of a profile. Stretching two miles northwest from the Mississippi River, Poydras Street during the first half of the 20th century ran past the aging storefronts of small marine transportation companies and other cargo-related businesses.

Poydras Street played second fiddle in those days to New Orleans’ primary business artery, Canal Street, which not only was home to some of the city’s biggest companies, but also was the city’s primary shopping corridor.

In the years to come, however, changes that would occur on Poydras Street would reflect a shifting economic landscape. Much of the action began in 1966.

In that year, then-Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen joined National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle to announce the startup of the New Orleans Saints. Also at McKeithen’s urging, the Legislature in 1966 approved a bond issue for construction of the Louisiana Superdome at the upper end of Poydras Street.

Those events occurred around the same time that the city was wrapping up a revamp of the street itself. Spurred on by the construction of the International Trade Mart (later World Trade Center) at the river end of Poydras Street, the city in 1966 finished widening the street from four driving lanes to six, adding a parking lane on either side and a 16-foot-wide neutral ground down the middle. The new boulevard was built to handle the heavy traffic that was sure to come.

In 1972, One Shell Square was completed at Poydras Street and St. Charles Avenue, becoming the city’s tallest building and a new center for the all-important oil industry.

Though construction of the Superdome had been delayed several years by litigation over the bond issue, the Dome finally opened in 1975 and welcomed the Saints, who had played up until then in Tulane Stadium.

By that time, local tourism businesses had awakened to the possibilities presented by the Saints, the Superdome and Poydras Street. The 1970s brought the opening of two large new hotels. The 1,200-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside would anchor the river end of Poydras Street, and the 1,100-room Hyatt Regency New Orleans would stand at the other end, next door to the Dome.

Tourism was becoming an increasingly viable industry at the same time that the oil and gas sector was on a track toward record-high commodity prices. It was a heady time for business in New Orleans.

The parallel surge in tourism and the oil business sparked a wave of hotel and office building construction, and while some of the inns rose on Canal Street and other nearby streets, most of the new towers would line Poydras Street. The construction of at least 15 high-rise office buildings along the street during 1970s and early ’80s confirmed its new status as New Orleans’ most important business corridor.

What the 1980s also brought to the city, however, was a severe downturn in the oil patch. As commodity prices plunged, corporate layoffs slashed occupancies in downtown office buildings.

Still, as the core plank of the local economy languished in a funk, the tourism industry gained steam. The growth in hotel and restaurant jobs that came with rising numbers of visitors couldn’t offset the white-collar losses sustained in the oil business, but tourism promoters wouldn’t be deterred.

A pivotal year for local tourism was 1984, the year a World’s Fair came to New Orleans. The city had laid the groundwork for the Louisiana World Exposition by building an entertainment marketplace that stretched along the riverfront from the Hilton Hotel to the downtown Mississippi River bridge. Though the hoped-for throngs of fairgoers never materialized and New Orleans had to acknowledge that the fair was a flop, the event left the city with opportunities, including a huge pavilion that tourism promoters would convert into a convention center.

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center quickly became one of the largest such facilities in the country, and with national corporations devoting more and more resources to conferences and trade shows, the local convention business took off. As the meeting business grew, so did the number of leisure travelers to the city.

New Orleans was fast becoming a top visitor destination at a time when oil and gas jobs – despite a moderate recovery in the industry – couldn’t fill all the downtown office buildings. That situation eventually led to some of the city’s older office buildings, including a few on Poydras Street, being converted into hotels.

The explosion of service jobs in tourism, and a recognition that New Orleans couldn’t rely heavily on the volatile oil industry for higher-paying jobs, led to a belief, still much espoused, that the city should make economic diversity a priority.

So far in the 21st century, New Orleans has made progress in growing jobs in sectors such as health care, software development and digital media. The city has also become known for nurturing entrepreneurial activity.

Nevertheless, through the ups, downs and shifting trends of the last half century, the three-legged stool that has long defined local business has continued to serve as the foundation for growth. Oil, the maritime industry and tourism remain cornerstones of New Orleans’ current and future economy.

 

Power of the port

Even as local economic tides have shifted, the city’s oldest industry continues to play a critical role in New Orleans’ growth. River commerce sparked the city’s founding 300 years ago, and today the Port of New Orleans competes in the global marketplace by continually expanding facilities, particularly container-cargo capacity, and employing new cargo-handling technology. The port has also helped to nurture tourism growth by adding and expanding cruise ship terminals that now remain busy year-round.

 

 

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