A lot has happened in the New Orleans Superdome since the terrible thing. With every passing celebration in the Superdome, the distance slowly grows between what is and what sadly was. But what was still lingers, in the water lines refusing to fade on so many houses, in the houses that will never be rebuilt. More than six years after Hurricane Katrina, and only six weeks ago, the very last FEMA trailer left the city.
Though few probably noticed what lingers this weekend during the NCAA Final Four and national championship, the first one New Orleans has hosted since the storm. (The last was in 2003.) Tens of thousands of basketball fans ate some of the best food in America, heard music they'd never hear anywhere else. They wandered from their hotel rooms to the bars and restaurants of the French Quarter, to the Superdome and back. It's highly doubtful many visited the Lower 9th Ward, though a few might have brought it up in conversation.
Tens of thousands of tourists reveled in the food, music and bon temps and will return home and tell their friends and family that New Orleans is doing fine. Maybe they'll come back for Jazz Fest, a bachelor party or just a weekend away. Do they need to understand that New Orleans still has a ways to go, or is it better that they don't?
Nothing can truly take the place of real awareness of the city's continuing problems, namely the highest murder rate in the nation. But as improvements are made to infrastructure, more students enroll in charter schools and more small businesses open, New Orleans is looking good. A long lineup of major sports events in the coming months doesn't hurt either.
"I think the significance of these events is somewhat different now than a few years ago," says Spencer Tracy, a Saints fan and production assistant in the New Orleans film industry. "Up until a couple of years ago such events were a means of showing that New Orleans was back and we were no longer underwater. But now that the nation has felt the economic downturn, I think the narrative has changed and people can see New Orleans as a viable place to live and do business."
Sports have been an enormous force in the city's recovery. The Saints stopped being the 'Aints and started making the playoffs, then became world champions. As a beloved Hornet, Chris Paul was the 2006 NBA Rookie of the Year. Locals who have always been proud of the history, the music and the food can add sports to the reasons New Orleans is a storied national treasure. But aside from the local teams, the national events that stampede upon the Vieux Carre have their own place in rebuilding New Orleans.
The Lieutenant Governor's office, which is the chief tourism office for the state, estimates this year's Final Four events will bring in around $134 million. The office of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu breaks the numbers down like this: $77 million in direct spending on the event, including game tickets and hotel rooms plus $57.1 million on shopping, dining and other entertainment. Last Monday, the city announced tourism numbers for 2011 -- 8.75 million visitors spending a record-breaking $5.47 billion, thanks to money from BP the state used for marketing. The majority of the tourists surveyed by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center -- 75 percent -- said they were visiting for pleasure, and more than 90 percent said they'd recommend the city as a travel destination.
The numbers are encouraging. But when it comes to major events, economists have been challenging city tourism officials for years, arguing the economic effects are often negative.
"The economic research on this question suggests that hosting Super Bowls and sports events doesn't support local economic activity," says Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College. "I haven't seen any compelling information to the contrary -- it might be the case given special circumstances that there could be a very modest boost to the local economy."
Though a city hosting any major event like the Final Four will certainly see hotels and restaurants filled to the brim, there's an enormous cost associated with such a huge influx of tourists. From security to cleanup to extra staff, the numbers tend to show the costs outweighing the revenue.
"Most experts peg a Final Four at between $30 and $60 million in direct economic impact to a city," says Robert Boland, Academic Chair of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at NYU. "Proponent figures are always naturally inflated and opponent figures not surprisingly suppressed. We rarely have neutral figures."
But Boland, who teaches a course called Sports Tourism and Mega Events, says even if the numbers are inflated, the overall return of big sports events is a key indicator of New Orleans' recovery, from its ability to host the events to the perception of the city in the eyes of tourists.
"If New Orleans pulls the Final Four off with its customary style, other decision makers who plan meetings and events will take notice because they will be watching right along with the basketball fans who are merely completing their brackets thinking they are watching a game," he says.
New Orleans will get a ton of free advertising throughout the Final Four. From beautiful shots of the French Quarter and the Mississippi River on CBS, Turner and ESPN, to a post-win Anthony Davis interviewed in Mardi Gras beads to the simple act of tourists tweeting about their delectable po'boys, you just can't measure how the Final Four will truly influence outsiders' image of New Orleans.
But what about the locals? Sure, if you're a bartender, hotel concierge or Superdome employee, you might be thrilled about big weekends like this. And many are -- restaurants are doubling staff and ordering plenty of extra liquor.
But economists say locals will stay in during major events, avoiding restaurants and shopping to avoid the crowds. Although there are signs of recovery almost everywhere, from a new playground in the Lower 9th Ward to new funding for Tulane and LSU to rebuild damaged health care research and care facilities downtown, not everyone thinks the city's precious resources are best spent on sports.
Just last week, Governor Bobby Jindal proposed moving $6.6 million from recovery programs that help fisheries, housing and small business loans to fund additional renovations in the Superdome, from air conditioning to seating improvements. The Superdome has already cost hundreds of millions of dollars to repair since Katrina's winds blew off parts of its roof. FEMA money paid $136 million of the state-owned Superdome's $336 million renovation.
"It is my firm belief that this would not be the best use of these funds and would send the wrong message to the local communities and citizens who continue to rebuild," wrote Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, in a letter to the governor and the federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Jindal's office has defended the proposal, saying the Superdome "is an economic engine" for the region and state. If you adhere to numbers from the Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, then it's hard to disagree with his stance. Dardenne's office estimates the 2012 Sugar Bowl brought in more than $100 million in direct spending, and the 2012 BCS National Championship brought in over $250 million.
"Sports events offer a multi-dimensional benefit," Dardenne says. "It's great for the psyche of the state because we're a sports loving people, and the economic impact speaks for itself. When you can have an 18-month period where one city is hosting BCS National Championship, Men's Final Four, a Super Bowl, Women's Final Four and having the U.S. Bowling Conference, it emphasizes our love of sports and our attractiveness as a venue."
John Williams, interim dean for the University of New Orleans' College of Business Administration, told ESPN in January he thinks sports are a major factor in the city's jump in restaurants from 805 pre-Katrina to 1,230 now.
While Dardenne agrees there are significant costs involved with these events, he says the raw economic benefits outweigh those costs.
"There are intangible benefits of having your state showcased on a national and international level," he says. "It's invaluable."
The state is working on a major events fund help attract and pay for more major sports events. Dardenne says the fact that the city is once again becoming a sports destination is a testimony to the resilience of the citizens.
Walking around his neighborhood, Tracy noticed something different about this weekend's visitors. They strayed from the typical French Quarter establishments, venturing out into more residential areas.
"I saw Kentucky and Ohio State fans shopping on Magazine Street uptown. They were shopping at local restaurants and eating in local eateries," he says. "New Orleans is able to use these events to show people that not only are we back after Katrina, but we are also a city that is friendly to small businesses."
Basketball championships and Super Bowls can't lower murder rates or raise graduation rates. But at the end of the day, it's the intangible benefits that might speak louder than numbers. For tonight, the Superdome will be part of the magic that makes another national champion, with many more to follow.
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