NEW ORLEANS — "Did we mention how happy we are you’re back?"
Prospective Cable Show (or National Show, if you prefer) exhibitors and a few invited trade press types heard that repeatedly Wednesday at a meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The place that’s hosted eight National Shows, most recently in 2004. The place that’ll host it again next May 18-20.
Nothing is normal about this convention’s return, as nothing is normal in Nawlins. There’s pre- and post-Katrina, as Cox Communications local manager of public & government affairs Brad Grundmeyer notes, but there’s no prospect of returning to normal, even two plus years removed from the hurricane and subsequent catastrophic flooding.
But having the cable convention back will do its part, as representatives of city hotels and tourism promoters stressed to about 30 representatives of exhibiting companies.
Grundmeyer — who attended the meeting with other Cox representatives, as the host cable operator — said attendees will hear variations on those warm words of welcome many times. And they’re heartfelt expressions, he said.
"We just appreciate people coming and making us feel that we’re here and this is a viable city," Grundmeyer said, whispering outside a hall where author J.K. Rowling was scheduled to read a "Harry Potter" passage to local school kids Thursday. "We know it’s crazy to live here, but we love it, and we want to share our culture in a profound way."
Tourism officials said if anything the city will be better hosts than in the past.
Millions are being spent on making the hotels better, even though none (save the renovated and reopened Windsor Court) of the downtown hotels suffered water damage, officials said.
There are actually more great restaurants now than before the flood, we were told.
And the city also has spent millions to clean up the oft-trashy sidewalks in the French Quarter. "The French Quarter is as immaculate as it’s ever been, since I was a baby," New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau convention marketer Sallee Pavlovich declared.
Remarkably, Pavlovich and her comrades felt compelled to address a number of fundamental possible fears about coming back to this unique American city.
The water is drinkable and the air is just fine, they said.
In the Eighth District, which includes the central business district and the French Quarter, "we have not had a homicide since January first," Pavlovich said. "We have a very safe community for our visitors."
She did note, though, that there are parts of the city — notably the Ninth Ward and the Lakeview area near Lake Ponchartrain — that suffered extensive damage that’s still quite evident today.
I took her suggestion Thursday and, en route to the airport, took a short taxi detour through Lakeview and drove past the 17th Street Canal levee that collapsed.
There are several brand-new homes with freshly sodded lawns in the West End area where my Haitian-born taxi driver, Fritznel Esperance, drove me around.
There are also numerous homes that have been at least temporarily abandoned, bisected by brown horizontal lines that showed where the water rose.
"Gone to Tennessee Be Back Later! Love Jessica & Cody" was spraypainted on the side of one of them.
A Cox Communications white pickup truck drove through one quiet intersection, just as Esperance was telling me how drowned victims were still being removed from their homes months after the August 2005 catastrophe.
Some of the exhibitor representatives who had toured the city on Tuesday expressed shock at the state of some of those neighborhoods.
But overall, they seemed reassured the convention center and nearby hotels would be ready for the cable show and its 15,000 plus attendees.
I agree, it will be.
The Quarter looked much the same to me — but often eerily quiet. The last big convention, of law enforcement, had just ended. Wednesday night, the line outside Acme Oyster House was short, seats at the bar readily available at around 7:30. The Abita, served in plastic go cups, was cold, and the raw oysters delicious.
Thursday morning, the Quarter — steamy even after a thunderstorm — was indeed quiet, almost like a Saturday or a holiday. Tables were easy to find at Cafe du Monde, where the beignets and cafe au lait were steamy, too, and the breezes welcome at a shady spot.
And the sidewalks were clean.