Controversy Brewing over Future of Ninth Ward

New Orleans city leaders discuss an ambitious economic development plan. An aide to the mayor says much of the housing in the city's impoverished Ninth Ward will have to be demolished. The city should offer that land to developers who can attract industry and high-skilled jobs. But critics say the plan leaves out the people who lived there before the flood.

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ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

This is Adam Davidson. Across the street from the capitol in Baton Rouge, a five-story government office building is now a sort of New Orleans in exile. The mayor's staff, the city council, all sorts of community groups, are borrowing office space here. It's crowded and noisy. So the head of economic development for the city, Don Hutchinson, is hiding in a quiet room in the basement planning New Orleans' future.

Mr. DON HUTCHINSON (Economic Development Head, New Orleans): The outcome that I would like to see come out of this is that we have a much stronger and racially diverse middle class than we've ever had before in the history of New Orleans.

DAVIDSON: Hutchinson says that more than a hundred and sixty thousand houses and buildings will most likely be demolished. Many of them are in the poorest parts of town. He hopes to turn them into productive, middle-class neighborhoods, so it might seem many of the poor who evacuated those areas will not be welcomed back.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I would totally disagree.

DAVIDSON: In the new New Orleans, Hutchinson says, everyone will be able to get training for high-skill, high-pay work. So many of the poor will come back.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I'm not going to be, you know, Pollyanna or naive to say that everybody's going to come back, because that probably won't happen. But I think New Orleans and the feel of New Orleans, the spirit of New Orleans, is in a lot of people's mind and a lot of people's heart, and when they see the redevelopment taking place, they're going to want to come back home.

DAVIDSON: Don Hutchinson says the city's political and business leaders have been talking constantly since the flood, and they've begun to agree on a shared, if still somewhat vague, vision of the future of the city.

Mr. STEPHEN PERRY (New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau): The driver's going to be cultural economy.

DAVIDSON: Stephen Perry runs the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau temporarily on the fifth floor of the Capitol Annex. He says the city's civic leaders were already discussing a new economic plan before Katrina, but the storm allows them to pursue their ideas more aggressively. There will still be strong industries, like ports and ship building, but most of the growth will be built around a concept called `Hollywood South.'

Mr. PERRY: Every element, not just of major motion picture film development, but of television shooting, of cable series development--which has already begun shooting MTV pieces, shooting television commercials--this is what's starting to happen here now. What I think you're going to see is the economy being rebuilt around those kinds of industries. You're going to see a lot of cool, young people who are computer programmers and game developers starting to locate in New Orleans.

DAVIDSON: A few flights downstairs, Van Randolph Fournier(ph) is borrowing office space. She runs an economic development organization in the lower part of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, one of the poorest and now most thoroughly flooded areas. Her vision includes funds for poor, but ambitious entrepreneurs who can create their own businesses when they get back to their old neighborhoods.

Ms. VAN RANDOLPH FOURNIER (Economic Development Organization): I don't think that anybody's going to come to the Lower Nine and create their packages of wealth without inclusion. And the reason I don't think so is because we're not going to let them. It won't happen.

DAVIDSON: But not everybody is so confident. A short drive south along the Mississippi from the capitol is the River Center where about 2,000 New Orleans evacuees sleep on cots arranged in tight rows. Chewy Clarke(ph) has been at the shelter for two weeks. He says he doesn't like what little he has heard about the rebuilding process.

Mr. CHEWY CLARKE (Evacuee): If they're going to start this process that ain't going to include poor folks, that ain't going to include working-class people, it is more than likely that they would in a sense rebuild that--rebuild a New Orleans that excludes the poor, the working-class people. That would raise the rental property and the like. Sure, without a doubt, I mean...

DAVIDSON: Fournier says people like Clarke shouldn't worry. There are strong leaders among New Orleans' poor who will ensure that doesn't happen.

Ms. RANDOLPH FOURNIER: So anybody who wants to come and they want to enhance the community, they're going to bring bucks and people with them, I think that they will find a very--they'll find a community of open arms. But they can't have it. They can join it.

DAVIDSON: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has announced that he'll form a committee to oversee the city's restoration. He promises it will include members of all communities and economic levels. He says he wants to be sure all citizens feel a part of the new New Orleans. Adam Davidson, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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