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Ron Forman on the growth of the Audubon Institute | Economic news

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Ron Forman recently celebrated his 50th anniversary at the Audubon Nature Institute, which was called Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens when he joined the organization in 1972 as a hotel liaison of Mayor Moon Landrieu.

Five years later, Forman was named president and CEO of Audubon and embarked on a campaign to lead its transformation from an “animal ghetto,” as it was derisively called at the time, in one of the main zoos in the country. In the decades that followed, he expanded the Audubon Institute’s portfolio to include the Aquarium of the Americas, Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, Louisiana Nature Center, Woldenberg Park, and Species Survival Center.

A tireless cheerleader for the city and its hospitality industry, Forman is focused on a four-year strategic plan and $100 million fundraising campaign that includes a redesign of the aquarium, the expansion of Woldenberg Park and the redevelopment of two miles of the downtown riverfront. He sat down recently to discuss his vision for the waterfront and why the city’s tourism sector is more important than ever.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why the strategic plan and the new investment? Was Audubon losing visitors to his attractions?

No. But we are heavily dependent on tourism. We have long understood that New Orleans, with a population of 1.2 million, is quite small, and the construction of world-class attractions, educational facilities and conservation centers in a city ​​of this size is limited. So we partnered with tourism a long time ago, knowing that if you add 15 million tourists to a population of 1.2 million, you have an audience of 16 million. This is how we grew up. But the only way to survive is to have a tourist base…because we have to raise about $1 million a week from the entries. We were doing this until COVID hit, and we had to lay off 700 employees. We were struggling with no tourists, everything locked down. So that’s when we developed a four-year plan. We learned after Katrina that when you’re down, you rebuild, you reinvest everything you have.

Tell me about the plan.

We mounted a $100 million campaign. In 2023 we begin the fourth year of this plan and this year we are opening our facilities in a whole new way. Family tourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry. With this in mind, we are completely redoing the aquarium. It will open later this year and then we are expanding Woldenberg Park, some of which will open in 2023 and some in 2024. The idea is to make the river a destination and create access to the river at the foot of Canal Street which is pedestrian. friendly. Then we will extend the waterfront park two miles to the industrial canal. So we’re opening up the riverfront to all of these neighborhoods, from the warehouse district to the Bywater. If you want to cycle to work or go jogging, you can do that. It is not a dream. It’s happening now, and much of it will be done by September.

You mentioned the two miles downstream. Does this include the redevelopment of warehouses on the edge of the French Quarter?

We are in partnership for the construction of a waterfront park which includes the French Market Corp. and the city, and an easy thing to say is the construction of a park there that will allow the river for the first time to be the porch of all the neighborhoods in this area. So we are working on plans for this park. On one side there will be a cycle path. On the other, there will be a pedestrian walkway and landscaping. Then there will be green space in between. We will retain some of the wharves and upgrade them for multi-use purposes. We don’t know what it is yet.

It would therefore be the quays of the Esplanade and rue Gov. Nicholas?

Right. And that’s the planning phase we’re in right now. We have the agreement to design, build and operate something there. We work with the mayor and the town hall in partnership with the surrounding neighborhoods.

When you say multi-use, do you mean retail? Entertainment? Lodging?

All we can say with certainty at the moment is that there will be cycle paths, jogging paths and green spaces, but it will require income-generating facilities to pay for the operations. The aquarium pays for Woldenberg Park. The zoo pays for Audubon Park. We do not receive operating funds from the public. We’d love nothing better than if somebody came along and said, here’s $70 million. But nobody does that. So we have to generate income in another way.

How does Audubon pay for the strategic plan?

All improvements are led by Audubon. But we work with the federal government, the state, the mayor of New Orleans, and we work with the business community, and we do our own fundraising, so we raise money from a lot of different sources. Most of our funds – probably 70% – come from the public, whether it’s municipal bond money, state capital spending, or dedicated mileage. We collect the rest from donors.

You talked about the importance of tourism to the Audubon Institute. Don’t worry, we put all our eggs in one basket? If New Orleans is nothing more than Disneyworld, where middle-class families can’t afford to live, what makes it a truly viable city?

There is no doubt that we need to diversify our economy every chance we get. It must be on all of our minds. There are times when we do a better job than other times. Tulane invests heavily in higher education. Health care is growing strongly. I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say that New Orleans isn’t working hard to diversify its economy. Solid investments are made in each of them. It is not enough. I don’t mean we don’t have a problem. We must continue to focus on diversifying our economy. But tourism not only serves economic development; it marks New Orleans as a great city. It shouldn’t be our only industry, but it’s the easiest to grow. I am optimistic but realistic too. We must maintain the gas pedal and always seek to grow economic development with diversity and opportunity for all.

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