Commerce prez says N.O. rebuilding to pick up

Updated: May 9, 2006, 6:25 PM ET
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The president of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday she expects the rebuilding of New Orleans to accelerate this summer and for the city to be far enough along in its recovery to resume hosting the Hornets by the 2007-08 season.

Sandra Gunner, the president and CEO of the New Orleans Chamber, spoke at the Oklahoma state Capitol one day after Hornets owner George Shinn expressed disappointment in the city's rebuilding.

After Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin included a mention of Oklahoma City's temporary hosting of the Hornets this season, Gunner commented about the team in her opening remarks, referring to them as "our Hornets."

"I want to make it clear we do intend to take them back," Gunner told an audience gathered for a small business event.

Gunner followed that by saying she expected Oklahoma City to get another NBA team to replace the Hornets.

On Monday, Shinn told The Associated Press in an interview that "I have seen virtually very, very little improvement and it's very discouraging and very depressing."

Gunner said the severity of Hurricane Katrina -- she called it the most severe natural disaster in U.S. history -- caused recovery efforts to be slow at first.

"The magnitude of it was such that it took a little more planning up front. We expect in June a lot of people are going to start rushing back," Gunner said in an interview with The Associated Press after her speech.

"School's out, so they prefer leaving the kids in whatever school for the year instead of pulling them out. Secondly, we will have had our mayoral election by then so we will know who our leadership is going to be, and therefore that leadership will go on and handle the critical decisions."

New Orleans voters will choose between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in a runoff election May 20. Shinn also suggested in his interview that the mayoral election might be a turning point.

"It's really very frustrating. It's just a bad situation," Shinn said. "Hopefully, once they get settled with a mayor -- whoever they choose -- some new stuff or some positive things can start happening."

Shinn spoke of areas that do not have electricity and do not have grocery stores open and suggested that traffic problems would make it difficult to live in New Orleans.

"I think it's been very slow and it has been very frustrating but just based on all of the different entities and things that are coming together, I would say we're anticipating June ... at that time we anticipate people will be coming back," Gunner said.

Gunner said the biggest impediment to New Orleans restoring its population is that there isn't enough housing for employees who want to return.

"The population is going to be dependent upon available housing. So that's going to grow slowly and in increments," Gunner said.

"There will be some people who are going to choose not to come back because they have been exposed to different worlds. Many of them are in very good jobs in places and their kids in very good schools. And that's not to say they won't ultimately come back but just due to the kindness of strangers, people are finding they can jump-start a new life."

Gunner pointed out that the Hornets had strong attendance at three games in New Orleans this March "even in a crisis." The team will play six home games in New Orleans next season, with the remaining 35 in Oklahoma City.

The NBA and the Hornets have said they plan for the team to return to New Orleans in 2007-08.

"We certainly are going to be ready for a basketball team," Gunner said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press