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NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans is experiencing a revolution of sorts. In our Nouvelle New Orleans series, reporter Jamie Menutis sits down with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Chief Technology Officer, Greg Meffert, in a candid discussion about the exciting and surprising changes going on with the new Administration. Out of the political establishment, Ray Nagin surprised everyone by winning the vote. He took office just six months ago with a fierce vow to rid City Hall of its years of corruption and bring New Orleans into a new age of technology, prosperity and development. Here's what they told G21.
G21: Everyone is focused upon New Orleans lately with all the changes going on in City Hall and the Hurricanes -- two in ten days! -- I wanted to know what you felt were your administration's biggest successes thus far?
MAYOR NAGIN: I guess at the top of the list is that I've been able to assemble a top management team that really rivals anything I've had in private industry. I knew that I was crazy and didn't mind taking on a great challenge like this, but then I get a Greg Meffert (Chief Technology Officer) and Beth James and before I knew it I had this All-Star Team. That's Number one. Number two: the work we've done in technology has been amazing.
We came into this place with a 25 year old system, an 8-track tape basically, and a website that was horrible, you couldn't process payments online or find any information and now we've fixed a lot of that and have plans to do so much more. Greg has been able to bring people like Microsoft's Bill Gates here and fashion a deal with him and Michael Dell came with him.
GREG MEFFERT: In fact, we met with them [software companies] today and we have a handful of consultants who are building a state of the art Microsoft directory network at no cost to us. They plan on living here for two months. It's the kind of thing that, with the new administration coming in, the Mayor setting the precedent, the team, etc. and they [software companies] recognize it ... What they call the "positive perfect storm," which is pretty cool, and it's the people inside and the ideas coming forth, maybe like the inmates taking over the asylum thing! [LAUGHTER] And it's made companies and people step up in a way they don't usually do. They see the partnership can be about new ground.
G21: It's pretty exciting.
MAYOR NAGIN: Technology is a huge one and another one is cleaning up our image. The big corruption probe, sends an incredible signal -- not only within City Hall but throughout the Metropolitan area, the state and the country -- that New Orleans is different and its ready to do business.
You can go there and you don't have to worry about corruption and things of that nature and it set a tone. And by doing that we now have everyone's attention.
We have companies calling us; they want to do business with us. We have projects that have been on the drawing boards for years that people have now come and want to invest their dollars. We have a movie industry that is on fire. We cannot keep up with the demand, there is such a need for artists, carpenters, housing, actors and actresses and the number of movies that have signed up just keeps growing and growing. To sum it up, we've created an environment for growth.
G21: Seems like you have. The moment has arrived for New Orleans!
MAYOR NAGIN: Yes, the moment for growth and change.
G21: I noticed in your platform that you said tourism was something that we just can't rely upon solely. What other areas of economic potential are you thinking of to develop beyond tourism?
MAYOR NAGIN: There are several key sectors.
First is technology. Greg O'Brien has done a wonderful job in the Technology Park, I don't know how many jobs he's created there. One of the things they've learned over there is that math, high tech and music are in many ways parallel and particularly music.
A lot of the tech workers are also musicians who play part time after working in the Technology Park. I thought to myself: Which City has more musicians than New Orleans! We can be a high tech community if we focus and make sure that people have proper training and education.
I think we do and can.
The second area that is taking off is the bio-medical research area. There's gene research, cancer research and several infrastructure groups and scientists that are working on various things from alternatives to Tylenol to DNA research. It's just expanding and growing and its going to be an incredible sector for us.
Another thing that we're focusing upon is the construction activity so that we can focus upon our infrastructure. New Orleans is a very old city and the maintenance of the city is not so great over the past years and so we are going to focus upon that and it's going to create a lot of jobs as it relates to that sector. That is going to allow us to focus upon improving the infrastructure, housing stock.
We have blighted homes that are dragging some of our neighborhoods down and we want to put specific focus upon that to make sure that doesn't continue.
Another thing I will tell you is that New Orleans has an incredible port. It is one of the reasons why this city is here and one of the things we haven't capitalized upon is that we are the number one importer of five raw materials: steel, raw metals, coffee beans, rubber and plywood. The number one importer in America! We only do value-added manufacturing on one of those items -- coffee beans. The other four raw materials sit in warehouses along the river from six to twelve months until somebody figures out what to do with them -- to move them to another location to be processed. It makes no sense.
So we're focused on how do we get manufacturing facilities to either start up here or relocate here. It would be wonderful to have a tire manufacturer, for example. Those are the sectors we are going to focus on.
G21: That leads into my next question as to what type of incentives does the city offer to businesses that are thinking of locating here either from other cities or countries?
MAYOR NAGIN: We have a dedicated economic development fund. We have some dedicated tax dollars that go to that, we also get federal dollars, on an annual basis, that we are now dedicating to developing business parks so that when companies come here they will have everything pretty much set up for them. We're also in talks with a couple of power generation companies and hopefully we will be able to offer discounted power rates to new companies that come into our community which can be a substantial savings for companies, particularly manufacturers.
GREG MEFFERT: With a City Hall that's open for business, if you will, we're leveraging the central role that the city has in terms of its visibility. When we work with a large vendor and get them to donate software and all these things to build this system, the pitch that I use to get their interest is that when we use your expertise and ours to build this system it can become this extraordinarily visible example of their product. In this case technology. That they can go and sell outside their market. I like to use the Example of Austin that is positioning itself as the healthcare Mecca. Well, as the Mayor spoke to, we have infinitely more healthcare activity and resources than they do, so why are they being viewed that way? The reason is packaging.
One of the biggest things we can do is to package and send our message out.
G21: Mr. Mayor, I wanted to know what you thought about the untapped economic growth potential of the international entities, you mentioned the port, what about the consular corps? Are they useful in attracting business to relocate to New Orleans?
MAYOR NAGIN: I haven't seen the consular corps do a lot of that and I don't know if its because of what's been going on in the city as a whole or if they've been lulled into a certain comfort zone and haven't focused upon economic development.
It seems to be more of a protocol type of function, which is a good and necessary type of function. I would like to see those consular corps move more into how can we create stronger economic links between their countries and New Orleans and we've been talking to them about that.
But I think one of the fundamental inhibitors to New Orleans truly being an international city is the airport. The airport has digressed to the point where it's really not an international airport as relates to direct flights, most international flights go to Houston, Miami or Atlanta and that's one of the key fundamentals that we are working on. We're in the process of building a new runway and setting up incentives to attract more international flights to New Orleans.
G21: Mr. Meffert, Mayor Nagin stated his commitment to make technology available to "regular" folks, what's your timeline to make this a reality and what's available today?
GREG MEFFERT: The timeline [is dependent] upon the service we're rolling out. We have three things we want to impact.
One is to make more efficient the way the City does business with itself, but also, secondly, to use technology to extend out to the city, to give the public ability to interact with things as mundane as getting a permit, to finding out what to do in a flood.
Historically people haven't looked to the city for that kind of information. We won't just help people get a license but be able to point them towards resources for that business.
G21: A one stop shop, so to speak?
GREG MEFFERT: Right, right! We're working with State programs like when you go to file for an occupational license, you will also have access to other resources.
That's where we are with services like that -- online permitting -- basically let people keep doing business as opposed to standing in a line.
Where we're moving to is far more interactive.
The Mayor's 100 Day address was webcast and we want to make it all more interactive with things like live chat, etc.
Again, to interact more intimately with City Hall and also more efficiently.
The big focus in rolling services out is that we just don't want to make it more efficient but to reach out to the public and right now you have a public that is pretty non-tech savvy.
If you go to a school or library or anywhere where there is a computer, you can do business with the City. We're taking sort of an Old World economy and bringing it into the new economy.
Those new efficiencies are also generating money, to this day, we've generated savings, on my side (through technology) well over 10 to 30 million dollars and a lot of it is recurring.
We can use that to go and attack blighted housing, etc. It touches a lot of different areas. The final vision of it will be fully interactive services internally and with the public...
Also recently, we downloaded some new software and discovered ten million dollars in uncollected taxes with eight million of those being collectable.
We're looking at some other things, and I guess its okay because it will come out next week, but just with adjudicated properties, we looked into that and found that there were 7, 133 properties that the City had the right to foreclose and own outright. And there is not only 130 million dollars in that that is collectable taxes but the property had an assessed value of 50 million and seven million of it is land.
We're going to go ahead and collect, and hope to give the police raises with it. And frankly, there are even bigger things on the horizon, something that will come out in about two months that will be worth another 10 to 20 million dollars a year.
So you bond that out and all of sudden you've got 300 million dollars. At the end of the day, everything I've just described is just data mining but a punch to political barriers. I am extremely grateful to the Mayor for creating this position because I've been given the authority to walk into any department and say give me this and we get to use it.
G21: It seems to be working!
GREG MEFFERT: Yeah, we're doing all right.
G21: Mr. Mayor, Could you give some final words for our readers about what you love about New Orleans, find so unique about it?
MAYOR NAGIN: Well, you know New Orleans is a real jewel of a city, like no other city I've been to. It's a city with character and rhythm, it's a city that has so many influences: African, Spanish, French, you name it! It's all here.
And when you come to New Orleans and compare it to other American cities, that basically look and feel the same, but when you see the French Quarter and the architecture, and go to the wonderful restaurants that are world-class and then you listen to the music, and this place is basically the birthplace of jazz.
You can go to Donna's off Rampart Street and listen to live local bands and every New Orleans musician who is anything comes through there and will sit in without practicing and its wonderful.
We have so many places like that. Or you can go to the Clover Grill on Bourbon St. you have, Earl, the Man, (waiter) and its an event just buying a hamburger!
It's unbelievable! You have all that flavor and character throughout the City and we're not even talking about Mardi Gras or Jazz Festival, this is just everyday events. And that's what I love about New Orleans.
G21: You're obviously the right man for the job because you truly love New Orleans. Keep up the good work.
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