Newsbeat

Gearing up for Trade
The national economy may be inspiring gloomy thoughts among policy makers, researchers and investors across the land, but New Orleanians looking for some good news in the financial world need only take a peek over the Mississippi River levee.
The river – the city’s, and state’s, historic economic powerhouse – has been bulging with the traffic of foreign trade lately. Exports from Louisiana set a new record in 2007, according to reports from the World Trade Center of New Orleans, and signals of more trade opportunities, especially imports, have spurred the Port of New Orleans to campaign for a far-reaching facilities enhancement plan.

Louisiana shipped approximately $30.4 billion worth of products overseas in 2007, representing a 30 percent increase over the value of goods shipped from the state the previous record-setting year (2006). Agricultural products, petroleum and coal, chemicals, processed foods, machinery and transportation equipment topped the list of the state’s exports, which flowed to markets as close as Mexico and Canada and as far as Japan, China and Egypt.

“The global economy continues to rapidly expand even with the slowdown in the U.S. and offers tremendous opportunities for Louisiana companies in all sectors and all parts of the world,” says Eugene Schreiber, managing director of the World Trade Center.    

He added that it is “absolutely critical” for the state to invest in port infrastructure to keep pace and compete with ports in other markets.

The Port of New Orleans is looking in particular to position itself to handle future shipping growth expected with the planned widening of the Panama Canal. Port spokesman Chris Bonura explains that a bigger canal would make it more efficient for today’s super-sized global cargo vessels to reach the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi River and the interior U.S. markets these local waters offer.

Overall imports to the Port of New Orleans were slightly lower in 2007 than the previous year, due to a drop-off in steel shipments. But it’s a different story with container shipping (the standardized metal shipping units being used to move an increasing volume and diversity of goods and commodities) which rose 50 percent in 2007 over 2006 at the port.   

“We’ll be at the same level as before Katrina, even though we have fewer container facilities now,” says Bonura. 

The hurricane shuttered the port’s France Road container handling facility but its Napoleon Avenue wharf facility has been more than making up the difference. The port is now planning a major expansion for this Uptown riverfront facility that would eventually triple its capacity to handle container shipping.

– Ian McNulty

Page turner – Project Home Again
As Hurricane Katrina recovery continues on a house-by-house basis in some areas of New Orleans, a new initiative is out to spark a rebirth in hard-hit Gentilly by building a cluster of 20 homes and donating them to neighborhood residents still struggling to rebuild. If successful, the same initiative, called Project Home Again, could provide up to 100 more homes in the area.

The nonprofit Project Home Again was created earlier this year by Barnes & Noble bookstore chairman Leonard Riggio and his wife Louise, who funded the project with $20 million from their family foundation. The local Winingder family, who had developed parts of Gentilly, sold a 3.4-acre lot off St. Bernard Avenue to the group as the site to build the first of the new homes.

“The goal is not just to build homes but to build community, because that’s what is really important,” says Riggio. “This is a pilot (program) and if we’re successful we’re going to build many more homes, probably 100 or 120, and hopefully inspire others to build more.”

Project Home Again manager Carey Shea says Gentilly was chosen as the area to test the program because it had been a strong neighborhood before the storm where people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds chose to live together.
The project is aimed specifically at working families who had owned homes in Gentilly prior to Katrina. Qualifying residents chosen to participate will receive a new home at no cost on the condition that they turn over their flood-damaged house or the property where it once stood to Project Home Again.

Each family will then get a mortgage equal to the difference between the value of their new and old homes, which will be systematically forgiven over a period of five years until the family owns the house outright. Shea says the nonprofit is analyzing options to best handle the swapped properties to benefit Gentilly.

Local sustainable design consulting firm FutureProof created three plans for the new houses, all drawing on environmentally sensitive building techniques. Green Coast Enterprises will oversee construction and the first homes are expected to be ready by next spring.

The deadline for homeowners to apply for the first phase of the program is April 15. Project managers will then conduct due diligence of applicants and hold a lottery to choose 20 beneficiaries.

For information and program applications, visit www.projecthomeagain.net.  
— Ian McNulty

Management in Motion
Local commuters may believe it takes a certain clairvoyance to steer clear of gridlock and delays on the road but regional planners and transportation officials will soon be drawing on much more tangible tools to help the metro area’s notoriously traffic-choked highways.

In fact, the nerve center for a whole new way of analyzing and responding to traffic situations is quite visibly taking shape now on the neutral ground of West End Boulevard, just off Interstate 10 on the edge of New Orleans. There, the Regional Planning Commission and the state Department of Transportation and Development are building a new center with a mission to use technology to improve the flow of traffic in an eight-parish area around Lake Pontchartrain.

Called the Regional Transportation Management Center, planners and technicians here will marshal an array of traffic cameras, message signs and other high-tech tools to better manage activity on roadways and provide motorists with the latest information.

“It will be a hub and spoke system where we’re the hub and we’re distributing the proper, up-to-date information out to the various agencies on the spokes or directly to travelers out there on the roads,” says RPC executive director Walter Brooks.
Brooks says the impetus behind the new center is the opportunity to use technology to get the most out of the state’s existing transportation infrastructure, a much cheaper proposition than building or expanding highways. The heart of the center will be a large operations room sporting a huge video display wall and various workstations all monitoring real-time video, voice and electronic data from around the region.

“If an 18-wheeler turns over on I-10 we’ll be able to identify the problem and deal with it more quickly and effectively,” says Brooks. “We’ll be able to get real-time images to whoever needs them, whether that’s police, EMS, fire departments [or] hazmat units.”

In addition to dealing with the daily commute, the coordinated resources of the center will also help authorities manage the region’s highways during especially demanding traffic situations, from Mardi Gras and New Orleans Saints games to the possibility of hurricane evacuations. 

Construction is well underway on what will be a 30,000-square-foot, $12.4 million building, and the RPC expects the facility to open in April 2009. When it’s ready, the center will also become the new home for the local DOTD office and the RPC.

“If we’re successful and it’s done right, we’ll be able to expand what we’re doing to other areas of the state,” Brooks says. – Ian McNulty

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