New Orleans: rebuilding a cultural economy

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Note: This is the first in a multi-part series reporting on how New Orleans is leveraging its own roots in culture and creativity to re-build commerce and community.

Jazzfest kicked off its 40th year anniversary this weekend under beautiful breezy blue skies.   Despite the global economic mood, the festival goers seemed more  upbeat this year as programs to rebuild the New Orleans economy are slowly taking root and beginning to yield visible results.

At the round table hosted by the Louisiana Office of Tourism on Saturday at the fairgrounds, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu led a group of local culture entrepreneurs and artists in a discussion for the vision of re-invigorating the economy through New Orleans rich heritage.    “We have our priorities right here in Louisiana, we treasure the arts. Our friends and family come first.  We have a shared sense of stewardship to the community”, he said.

As Seth Harvey put it, also from the state’s Office of Tourism, “We have a lot of very different assets here in Louisiana.  50% of our revenue used to come from the oil industry, now that is down to 20% but revenue from the film industry is up to $800 million (up from $25 million in 2002)”.     Louisiana has re-looked at cultural preservation and initiated the groundwork to re-build an economy that leverages its unique heritage.  From reaching out to Hollywood to create the first ever Cajun and Zydeco music category in the Grammys (2008), to fostering international interest in Louisiana’s rich culinary traditions, New Orleans is building bridges back into the state through the promotion of culture not found elsewhere.

In an era dubbed “the creative economy”, Louisiana is an interesting example of innovation. By creating tax incentives for film production to passing legislation to help create districts or cultural hubs within the city, commerce is facilitated at a very grass roots level.  Block by block, business is developing, not from harnessing the internet or technology but from the firsthand understanding of needs and limited available resources.     By tapping into the population that was born and raised in Louisiana and providing them training and guidance, Louisiana is an example of bottom-up development instead of top-down governance, a recipe for resilience.

In fact, the festival itself is a mark of the type of grass roots success that the region seems to feel at home with. The first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was originally started to celebrate the indigenous music and culture of the region.  40 years later, the festival is expected to attract over 400,000 guests, 40% of which are expected to be from outside the state.  In a down economy, this is a cultural success story.

In celebration of  Jazzfest, this series of stories will focus on why and how NOLA is a hotbed of social enterprise, a check-in on the different housing re-build efforts 3 years after the storm, and a review of some of the unique sustainable community projects that just may have scalable applications.  Stay tuned.

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