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Roger Wilson's 'Broadway South' initiative could rebuild downtown New Orleans as a theater district.

New Orleans-born actor, writer and entrepreneur Roger Wilson is a familiar face to many New Orleanians. He has a winning smile, larger-than-life personality and on-the-spot elegance to tell a story and to inspire -- skills that have propelled him into movies as an actor, into business with the launch of a multi-million-dollar Internet startup, and into local politics, having run for an at-large City Council seat in the spring elections.

Wilson has worked every side of the arts and entertainment business -- from his portrayal of Mickey in the ribald early '80s comedy Porky's (his first screen role and one of the leads) to selling screenplays to major studios to conceiving and launching www.IAM.com, a Web site where arts and entertainment professionals and aspiring talent can network and promote their careers.

Sitting in the lobby of the Loews Hotel recently, Wilson is talking about how he has brought together his experiences and contacts in a plan to revitalize downtown New Orleans. He effortlessly paints a broad vision while sketching out crucial details of a story that encompasses why he's come home to New Orleans and how he plans to bring Broadway entertainment with him.

Wilson's idea would seem bold even if it were a rebuilding plan and nothing more. Besides remaking downtown into an entertainment and commercial district, it's a vision that many local politicians and tourism officials have already embraced as an engine to create new jobs in New Orleans and revive the local tourism industry.

He calls it "Broadway South."

Just as state-granted film tax credits spawned the term "Hollywood South" and brought major studios and productions to Louisiana to create films like Ray and All the King's Men, Wilson would like to see a similar tax credit created for theater and performing arts productions. Coupled with federally created Gulf Opportunity Zone (GO Zone) incentives designed to encourage investment in rebuilding devastated areas, Wilson believes the right mix of tax incentives will attract investors to rebuild local theaters and production companies to put shows in them.

In both cases, the appeal of New Orleans is simple: it's good business.

"They don't call it show art," Wilson says. "They call it show business -- and for a reason. My goal is bring more of that business to New Orleans."

For Wilson, the challenges of Kat-rina were a clarion call to return home and put his talents to work. "This is my home," he says. "My parents are buried here. If you're home is struck, you have to strike back. I tried to put ideas on the table about how best to rebuild."

After years bouncing between acting and writing gigs in New York and film projects in Los Angeles -- the opposite poles of the entertainment world -- Wilson decided that he needed to turn his voice and ideas to the challenge of rebuilding New Orleans. He was encouraged to run for one of the at-large City Council seats in the spring elections, finishing in the middle of the pack. But the campaign also birthed an idea that drew such enthusiastic responses that it became his new calling. Wilson decided to draw on his knowledge of the theater business in New York and post-Katrina opportunities in Louisiana to put forward a plan to rebuild downtown.

"I grew up downtown. I lived at the Fairmont Hotel for four years," he says. "Canal Street was like my backyard -- I watched Mardi Gras there. I was driving down there one night during the campaign. It broke my heart to see it empty."

Since the election, Wilson has spent a lot of time thinking about Canal Street and its meaning to New Orleans. What was once the city's main thoroughfare was crushed by the storm and its name marred by images of looters on national television. Canal Street today has new palm trees and refurbished streetcars, but many downtown shops remain shuttered. Among theaters, only the State Palace has opened for a few events, and it currently is undergoing renovations. The other major theaters feature empty marquees or "for sale" signs.

Wilson would like to see those marquees light the way for a revival of New Orleans' downtown. He wants to rebuild the commercial district by making it a nighttime attraction featuring theater, music and the performing arts. His plan targets private investment based on models that are already successful. It starts with simulating the success of the state's film tax credits, which have made Louisiana the third-ranking state for TV and film production for the last three years.

Wilson hopes to see state lawmakers pass a bill next spring that would extend similar credits to live theater and performing arts. In addition, for the next several years, investors will be able to take advantage of federally created GO Zone incentives, which will make doing business in south Louisiana even more enticing. GO Zone incentives are designed to promote building or rebuilding infrastructure -- including theaters.

"This is rebuilding around a cultural initiative. Not only rebuilding theaters but also filling retail outlets as the potential backbone of a new cultural industry," Wilson says. "If you're talking about a building, that's millions of dollars in investment. If you think about several theaters -- the Saenger, the Downtown Joy, the State Palace, the Orpheum, and then surrounding office space, the jobs it will create -- the key is the tax credit. That will rebuild vital infrastructure."

Using federal tax credits to draw investors to rebuild and reopen theaters downtown is only half the equation, though. Wilson also has a plan to attract producers of Broadway-bound shows to put their productions in local theaters. That's where the state tax credits factor into the equation -- by giving producers tax credits for jobs created in the renovated local theaters.

Broadway South thus brings together three major interests. Legislators can create the tax credit and an environment that makes Louisiana an attractive place to do business. The credits appeal to investors as well as producers. Investors could bundle the state tax credits with GO Zone and other breaks to rebuild and open theaters, while producers could get substantial incentives to bring pre-Broadway shows to New Orleans. Equally important, the credits would apply statewide, so investors and producers could look at markets from Jefferson Parish to Shreveport.

The film tax credits allowed Louisiana to grab a big chunk of production that was previously done elsewhere in the United States or Canada. Large-budget film projects can use the credits to recoup as much as 15 percent of their costs, even if the company is not headquartered in Louisiana, because the credits can be sold at a discount to companies that are located in (and pay taxes to) Louisiana.

Louisiana-based film production has grown more than tenfold since the inception of the credits. Local companies formed to take advantage as well. Malcolm Petal created LIFT, the first company to release a movie -- the low-budget horror film Evil Remains (2002) -- using the tax credits.

The credits have evolved since lawmakers first enacted the program. They were revamped and expanded in 2005, shortly before Katrina hit. Critics had charged that the credits should not apply to the entire budget of a film if large portions were produced elsewhere. Many also wanted to see more permanent jobs instead of temporary work. The 2005 changes added a credit for building infrastructure and provided incentives to create industry and jobs in the state. Petal's company recently broke ground in Mid-City for the creation of the Film Factory, a several-acre complex that will include five sound studios and a film school to train people for various careers in film production.

"First the credits were very aggressive to get business here, and then they were tweaked to make sure more money was spent in Louisiana," Petal says. "Resculpting wound up being very intelligent. It hammered out a good move forward."

With Broadway South, Wilson has his sights on two specific targets: Broadway productions and local theaters. In 2005, 12 million tickets worth a total of $1.1 billion were purchased for Broadway shows in New York. The money in theatrical productions is huge, but so is the risk. The production costs of opening a show on Broadway are incredibly high, and one bad review can spell disaster. Major production companies therefore produce shows in various feeder cities to work out a show's kinks and build momentum before opening in New York. Wilson sees that as an opportunity for New Orleans. Whether it's a musical, cabaret, comedy show or variety show, whether it has a large cast or a single star, previews are now an industry standard.

"All Broadway productions do preview shows. In New York, the stakes are too high to fail there, so they use Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco," Wilson says. "Those cities don't offer tax credits. We're going to make it 30 percent cheaper for you to make New Orleans a pre-Broadway venue. The benefits are profound. It's not going to be a matter of should you take advantage of this. It's a matter of you can't afford not to."

Wilson's plan involves state legislation to replicate the success of the film tax credits. State Sen. Edwin Murray of New Orleans, whose district includes the French Quarter and one side of Canal Street, is the lead author of the legislation Wilson envisions. Murray says he expects to pre-file a bill this week, and lawmakers can consider the issue in the fiscal session that begins in April 2007.

"This is a much more direct program [than the film credits]," Murray says. "The theaters are here, the plays are here, it generates other activity, and people are going to go to dinner. This is going to touch an awful lot of people. It's a great complement to the film credit."

Murray expects the theater tax credits to have other benefits besides Broadway South. "It's going to open theaters for local shows, too. There's going to be great spin-off." Murray also hopes to find ways for universities to generate academic credit and professional training opportunities under the plan.

There is increasing support in Baton Rouge for using targeted tax credits or breaks to promote growth. Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu sees the legislation as being consistent with state efforts to develop cultural economy.

"It's a very innovative, exciting idea. I support using targeted tax cuts and tax breaks to spur development. This idea is a logical extension of the film tax credit. We think it's moving in the right direction," Landrieu says.

"The policy question is fairly easy. We need to see our culture as part of our economy so our tax structure should reflect that, whether it's targeted tax cuts or eliminating taxes. This is a continuing effort: We eliminated the entertainment tax; We just passed an amendment not to tax art on consignment; We passed the film tax credits. There's a theme running through all this stuff: treat theater, art and preservation like economic development. It's about workforce development. It promotes capital development."

Meanwhile, Wilson is already talking to the handful of companies that produce more than 90 percent of Broadway's productions. He also is creating a company called Broadway South to invest in local theaters. If it all comes together, Canal Street could see a whole new type of cultural season opening as early as the fall of 2009.

Among the supporters of Broadway South is Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Perry sees it as much more than a rebuilding plan.

"The Broadway South concept is tremendous. It makes sense in every way," Perry says. "When I was the governor's chief of staff, we did the film tax credit. [Louisiana] went from $15 million a year to $400 million a year in film production because those credits put us on the map. It made it very powerful economically. We still haven't seen all it can do. The reason that's so important is that it took an industry that was new and just exploded it."

Perry says Broadway South is the kind of initiative the city and state should pursue for the future. "This is the kind of initiative that could have the impact that the building of the Convention Center had on tourism in the 1980s," he says.

Perry adds that Broadway South also presents a way to "re-brand" New Orleans. He points to the growth of other cities that have succeeded in branding themselves as live entertainment centers -- Austin, Texas, Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., and even San Diego among them.

"In 2002, when the Super Bowl was coming, San Diego had just redone the Gas Lamp District. These places are artificial replicas of what New Orleans is at heart. You can't manufacture history and patina. We have it," he says. "The French Quarter is still a great place, but it's at a critical point in terms of direction. Decisions will be made in the next two years about the French Quarter as America's most historic mixed-use neighborhood. ... We could have one of the most viable entertainment communities in the country overnight."

The prospects look good because even failed rebranding has spawned benefits. Ten years ago, Las Vegas failed to recreate itself as a family destination, in spite of a wide array of new types of entertainment attractions. At its core, the message didn't work because it was too contrary to the perception of the city. Even so, Vegas in the ensuing decade went from seeing 95 percent of visitor entertainment dollars being spent on gaming to just more than 50 percent, with a much larger share shifting to music and theatrical entertainment, Perry says. Now every city is trying to catch up with Las Vegas' stunning growth as an entertainment destination.

Focusing on rebranding New Orleans as a music and entertainment city is one of Perry's priorities at the CVB. It also is a logical place to start, given the city's history and other assets.

"New Orleans has, over the last 10 years, made food its dominant brand. If we were able to rebrand the city, not only nationally but internationally, and put the food brand on one pillar and create one of the most dynamic live music centers of all sorts -- with theater, cabaret, live local and national jazz -- combined with the GO Zone, which goes towards infrastructure, plus the historic tax credits, that's the future," he says. "What draws customers now in America is entertainment product. We can combine that with our natural authenticity. We can reach a level that we've never been to before."

Perry says many popular jazz venues are located outside the French Quarter, but there's no reason downtown shouldn't offer large, quality venues as well.

"We know it works in San Diego, Memphis, Austin, Nashville, and we know it changed the face of Las Vegas. This for us should not be a dream. This is something we can't live without," Perry says. "If we're able to pass this, it will not only restore confidence of locals but we'll realize dreams of what we always thought it could be. And we can do it in 36 to 48 months."

Wilson agrees. With little prior existence as a tourism or entertainment center, Branson, Mo., has become a magnet for visitors. Branson is middle-America's Broadway, with musicals, comedy and all sorts of variety shows. Wayne Newton became ageless in Vegas. A host of others are doing it in Branson. It's a place to find the likes of comedian Yakov Smirnoff, one-hit wonder Mickey Gilley, and a host of non-celebrity-driven musicals and variety shows. Branson built theaters and has put itself on the map as an entertainment destination.

"I believe people yearn for culture. I believe it's a matter of 'if you build it, they will come,'" he says.

While Wilson has approached the major New York theater production companies about the plan, he also brings a wealth of connections to influential actors and theater professionals. He has co-written works with Harvey Keitel, who currently is the president of the Actors Studio in New York. Keitel came to New Orleans to support Wilson's City Council campaign and also supports him in this endeavor, seeing the benefits from a different angle.

"This isn't the world according to Harvey Keitel, this is the world according to the Greeks and ancient civilization," Keitel says from his office in New York. "There's an aphorism that says, 'If politics is the business of a city, then theater is its soul.' That's something I believe. Theater is a very powerful tool."

One of the strengths of Broadway South is that it doesn't see business and the arts as mutually exclusive. The state has seen shades of that divide with the placement of the Office of Film and Television Development, which was moved from the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism to the Department of Economic Development in 2002. Since the film tax credits have lured big-ticket projects like the movie Deja Vu (with a budget of $50 million), it's been easier for legislators and economic development officials to focus on these types of tax credits. In 2005, projects in Louisiana were expected to exceed $377 million dollars.

While the film credits did an incredible job of bringing productions to Louisiana, concerns about how the credits were structured caused lawmakers to tweak the program last year. The biggest change has been the credit for infrastructure. LIFT's Film Factory is helping fulfill two of the state's goals in making the recent changes. Building studios creates full-time jobs in Louisiana and the film school provides training for those jobs. The long-term effect is to build local industry and draw even more business to Louisiana. Petal notes other advantages as well.

"Louisiana is becoming a place where you need to go to make contacts. We're in a rapid growth phase. People can get in here faster than they can in established places like New York or Los Angeles. You can be at the forefront of a burgeoning industry."

The tax credit also has been replicated for other segments of the entertainment industry, such as music. Scott Aiges, former director of music development in the mayor's office and currently the new Director of Programs, Marketing and Communications at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, started talking to legislators about music-related tax credits late in 2004. As the film credits were being debated, he took a flexible approach.

"I thought that whatever they're willing to do for film, great, I'll shoot for that," he says, smiling.

Legislators initially were skeptical, noting that Louisiana already had a music recording industry. Some wondered if additional inducements were necessary. Aiges answered that the goal is to attract big recording projects to New Orleans, not just to record New Orleans music. "People in the music business work with their friends," Aiges says. "You have to offer them enough to change their habits."

From the beginning, one of the local benefits of Broadway South is that it's necessarily about buildings.

"For New Orleans, Broadway South is infrastructure. It lives. It breathes. It stays here. Not like a $50 million dollar movie that comes here and goes," Wilson says. "With Broadway South that $50 million stays here, it draws tourists here. Unlike the film tax credit, it would draw producers here. It'll help regional theater. We're trying to lure Broadway here."

Bill Hines, the managing partner of law firm Jones Walker and chair of Greater New Orleans Inc., examined the film tax credit legislation and has worked with Wilson on the theater tax credit concept. One of the aspects he looked is the "fiscal note," the state's estimate of what the legislation would cost.

"The fiscal note should not be real high for theater. If you took 10 Broadway plays and looked at what they would cost, you can do a lot more with those theater productions than one major film for the same cost. The theaters are here year-round. There's no pre- or post-production work elsewhere. For the theater you are going to need local musicians, the sets will be built here. The state gets good value for the tax credit," Hines says.

At the same time, it continues to build the entertainment cluster, he adds. So people working in film, video and theater can find opportunities in overlapping areas.

Wilson projects that a theater tax credit similar to the film tax credit will attract $200 million in private investment for construction and renovations over the next five years. Equally important, the renovated theaters will be places where local residents have full-time jobs.

The previous success of Broadway in New Orleans at the Saenger Theatre shows that there is a local market for this type of entertainment. And then there are the tourists.

More than 10 million visitors came to New Orleans in 2004. Wilson projects that even if only 5 million visitors come each year, and if just 5 percent buy tickets for pre-Broadway shows, the impact would be substantial. At an average ticket price of $65, Broadway South would generate more than $16 million in ticket sales alone. That does not include concessions, CDs or other souvenirs sold at theaters -- or dinners, cab fares, or additional hotel and retail spending outside the theaters.

"We're not just talking about creating jobs. We're talking about not losing other jobs as tourism recovers," Wilson says. "The alternative is what you have now."

Attracting private investment for infrastructure is made easier by federal GO Zone incentives, which have no adverse impact on the Louisiana treasury. The specific benefits include tax-exempt bond financing, accelerated depreciation deductions of 50 percent for new development, an extension that allows carrying net operating losses for five years instead of two, allowances for demolition and clean-up expenses, plus other targeted tax breaks related to labor and restoration of commercial spaces. Coupled with a state Broadway South tax incentive for operating costs, the benefits add up substantially.

A Broadway South benefit could be realized anywhere in the state, Wilson emphasizes. Canal and Rampart streets would be obvious benefactors, but the same incentive would apply to locations on the riverfront, in Jefferson Parish and in Baton Rouge, Lafayette or Shreveport. Under GO Zone regulations, applicants could seek three different sets of benefits, depending on whether a parish was affected by Katrina, Rita or both.

"If it doesn't cost the city anything, if the money comes from somewhere else and it repairs downtown, it's a huge win-win," Wilson says.

Wilson's family has a history of creating business in New Orleans. His father, Roger Wilson Sr., founded J. Ray McDermott, a worldwide oil construction company. His father also was one of the initial minority-share owners of the New Orleans Saints. As a boy, Wilson was a water boy for the team and watched the Saints return their first kick-off for a touchdown in Tulane Stadium. His sister created the original Rosie's Jazz Hall on Tchoupitoulas Street. Broadway South thus reflects a family tradition.

"At the core of any good business is a creative idea," he says.

In a more fundamental way, Wilson also thinks the arts can help heal the city.

"Culture is the best teacher we have on the importance of learning to live together. That's why New Orleans culture is so important."

click to enlarge Roger Wilson has a plan to revitalize New Orleans' Canal - Street as a theater district by staging Broadway-bound - shows. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Roger Wilson has a plan to revitalize New Orleans' Canal Street as a theater district by staging Broadway-bound shows.
click to enlarge Under the Broadway South plan, Canal Street one day would - capture some of the glitz of New York's Broadway. - GILBERT HETHERWICK
  • Gilbert Hetherwick
  • Under the Broadway South plan, Canal Street one day would capture some of the glitz of New York's Broadway.
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