- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - When Roger Wilson stands at the edge of downtown, he doesn’t see the shuttered theaters or get that sketchy vibe some feel in this part of the city. Instead, the New Orleans-born actor sees a thriving theater district along Canal Street. A bright, tourist mecca: Broadway South.

Mr. Wilson hopes to make his vision a reality by taking advantage of tax credits, approved this year by lawmakers to lure live productions to Louisiana. He is leading an effort to buy and renovate four theaters that haven’t reopened in the 28 months since Hurricane Katrina.

There is more at stake than plays or symphonies: Many see the theater project as key to driving the investment needed to remake and revitalize downtown and once again make New Orleans’ main street — Canal — the place to be.

“We need more venues to keep people here longer to spend more money here over time,” said Kurt Weigle, president of the Downtown Development District. The theaters are “without a doubt a key component, because they are an anchor.”

Before Katrina, the Saenger staged plays and musical performances and the Orpheum was home to the Louisiana Philharmonic. But empty storefronts blighted the area.

By the 1970s, as residents fled the poverty-plagued city for the suburbs, Canal’s longtime prominence as a regional shopping hub began to wane and there gradually became fewer reasons — beyond getting to the touristy Quarter — to spend much time there, said Peggy Laborde, who co-wrote “Canal Street: New Orleans’ Great Wide Way,” with John Magil.

“Why come downtown at night unless there is a mix of restaurants and things like that?” she asked.

Katrina, whose destruction exposed many of the problems that affected the city and limited its economy, provided what some see as the push needed to remake New Orleans’ image as the place to be for culture and entertainment and turn it into a magnet for what Mr. Wilson calls “the creative class,” an educated, professional population.

“The sad truth is, none of this would be getting done without Katrina,” Mr. Wilson said. “It has put forth issues that sat on a shelf.”

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