Morial exhibition center goes to Senate floor

A bill needed to accelerate New Orleans’ riverfront redevelopment inched closer to the governor’s desk Friday.

The Senate Finance Committee voted, without objection, to advance House Bill 516 to the full Senate after praising the proposal.

If no changes are made on the Senate floor, HB516 will go to Gov. Bobby Jindal for his signature.

HB516 would allow the Ernest N. Morial-New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority to borrow money for projects outside the convention center’s current footprint.

“It’s a great opportunity to redevelop the space around the riverfront,” state Sen. Ed Murray said.

The Louisiana House struggled with the legislation, largely because of concerns that state government would be on the hook for part of the projects’ cost.

The bill stalled and required separate votes over two days before it moved to the Senate.

The projects include the renovation or demolition of the World Trade Center building. The 33-story building once was home to offices and a rotating bar called Top of the Mart. The skyscraper now sits vacant at the end of Canal Street.

One proposal envisions a W Hotel and the addition of 280 luxury apartments, with a “Tricentennial sky wheel.” Another proposal calls for a riverfront park and a monument.

Upriver from the convention center is land that also could take on a new purpose.

Convention Center Boulevard would get a makeover.

HB516 — sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger III — is key to the city’s plans to complete the projects in time for New Orleans’ tricentennial in 2018.

Leger, D-New Orleans, said his legislation does not require or mandate the projects’ inclusion in the state construction, or capital outlay, budget. He did not rule out the possibility of the city asking for the state’s financial assistance.

State Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, said New Orleans already dominates the state construction budget.

“We give New Orleans about 70 percent of the capital outlay (dollars),” he said.

Leger questioned the accuracy of Tarver’s statement by saying he would accept an amendment to make that a fact.

Other committee members only had favorable things to say about the city’s plans.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said expanded meeting space would help New Orleans compete nationally for conventions that now flock to the generous floor space found in venues such as Las Vegas.

Murray, D-New Orleans, said an improved riverfront would ease the crush of tourists in the French Quarter.