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NAR Triumphs In New Orleans

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 14 November 2006 00:00

Some people are still skittish about visiting New Orleans. But they shouldn't be. Over 25,000 Realtors, spouses, vendors and more agree that the people of New Orleans have a spirit that no hurricane can ever crush. After dozens of on-the-street interviews, one thing is clear -- Realtors feel like they are helping New Orleans get back on its dancing feet.

"Thank you for coming!" "Thank you, Realtors!" "Please go back and tell your friends to come to New Orleans." These were refrains heard over and over again.

This town is ready to go back to work -- to serve, to entertain, and to share its world-class food, its unique, colorful history and inspiring stories of today.

While other organizations, including Microsoft, have canceled conventions in New Orleans through next year, the NAR admits it briefly considered doing the same. With an even more active hurricane season predicted for 2006 (which thankfully failed to materialize) many supporters have waited on the sidelines. Why rebuild when the levies may fail again? Will residents return? Will hotels be restored? Will there be enough workers?

But NAR leadership reached out with its concerns, working with the city, hotels, and the beleaguered convention center to open as planned. And the NAR had its own challenges. Unlike NAR conventions in California and Florida, which are largely supported by high numbers of agents who live in or near San Francisco, Anaheim, or Orlando, New Orleans relies on its own star power to bring in more attendees.

Providing unprecedented starpower in programs didn't hurt. Who didn't want to see Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom have united in a nonpartisan way to become huge supporters of disaster victims. And who knew they were both so funny, particularly Bush? They had the crowd alternately laughing uproariously and wiping away tears. Their message, however lightly delivered, was that bipartisan cooperation can get wonders done, and they both showered their gratitude to Realtors for coming to the city.

A little birdie told me it was NAR's vice president and convention planner Sue Gourley's idea to snag hometown boy Harry Connick, Jr. as the closing night's main event. He and his incredible jazz band wowed the crowd with showmanship, talent, looks, and humor, right down to a hilarious backside shimmy dance with his first-chair trombone player.

It was pure New Orleans.

The convention wasn't all play and no work. NAR members usually build one Habitat For Humanity home in their annual convention city. For New Orleans, the number was bumped up to 55 houses, in some stage of framing toward completion. In addition, Realtors helped clean up City Park, sorted books at the public library, worked on De La Salle High School, and much more. Bring back the people is NAR's goal. After all, over 40 percent of the area's economy is dependent upon tourism, along with jobs for over 85,000 people.

Oh, there were a few glitches to grouse about if you forget what the city is still up against. Water is still in short supply, and some hotel guests may have noticed their showers weren't working at 2:00 in the morning. The walk to the convention center was extra-long because there's still so much repair to be done that only far-flung Hall D was operational. And some may have found bars and restaurants short staffed as they did their best to serve the biggest crowd of the year. Why? There's still a tremendous labor shortage in New Orleans, particularly for skilled labor. And there's the even more challenging fact that a critical housing shortage is contributing to the absence of workers. Since Katrina, much of workforce housing was destroyed, and other properties have skyrocketed in rents. Who can bus tables on that?

And that's why, as smoothly as the convention went, concern still hovers like a death sentence over the city. Just talk to the taxi drivers. They're eager to show you the sights ... which now include tours of the devastated Ninth Ward.

"We're still waiting for the help to come," said one, disgusted with bureaucratic and private sector inaction.

A quick tour of the area tells the story. Before you cross the bridge away from the tourist districts and across the levy, the devastation is already apparent. Shell-shocked homes, broken windows, fallen trees, and crosses on the front doors detailing in broad paint strokes what rescuers found over a year ago -- two alive, one dead. Even pets were noted by the SPCA. One dead dog. One cat taken to shelter. In tribute, our driver circled past the home where his friend, a fellow taxi driver, drowned to death in her own home with her taxi parked out front.

Another driver was luckier. He told us his house was destroyed, and except for continuing haggles with his insurer, he's found an apartment to live in across the river. He refused to take the offer of a FEMA trailer.

You see, the FEMA trailers are available to homeowners for about 18 months, some of whom have parked them on the front lawns of their homes in front of their devastated homes. But the Ninth Ward, only minutes from Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, and the riverfront hotels, still doesn't have electricity, water or gas.

So where are workers supposed to live? Now, the area is so deserted you won't even hear a bird sing.

Yet, they're passionate about bringing New Orleans back. "This region supply 40 percent of energy for America," said one taxi driver with confidence.

"You think America let New Orleans die? Never. If New Orleans die, America hurt very much."

The takeaway is the message that NAR is sending by not withdrawing its support from New Orleans. As NAR president Tom Stevens expressed, "We're in the business of building communities and putting people into homes."

Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau said, "We cannot fully express our gratitude to the National Association of Realtors&Reg; for their commitment and service to New Orleans, especially for the volunteer community service projects that will help so many Gulf Coast residents."

"The fact that the largest trade association in the United States trusted New Orleans to host its record-breaking meeting, should send a resounding message to the world that New Orleans convention business is back."

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Blanche Evans

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