NEW ORLEANS — Closed for more than three years, a prominent performing arts center is scheduled to reopen Thursday in what city leaders call a symbolic step forward in the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
The 2,100-seat Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts venue — home to the city’s symphony, ballet and opera — was badly damaged during the 2005 floods that followed Katrina. Its roof blew off and more than 14 feet of water flooded the basement.
Besides the renewal of a city icon, city leaders hope the theater’s reopening is the start of a theater renaissance in New Orleans that draws back more tourist trade. Today’s events kick off a week-long celebration culminating with a performance by famed tenor Plácido Domingo.
“Music and culture is part of who we are,” Mayor Ray Nagin said. “[The theater] was a huge missing link, and now we’ve gotten that back.”
Nagin and other officials put the theater’s renovation at the top of the city’s post-Katrina priority list, along with police headquarters and other vital city buildings, Nagin said. But city officials haggled with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency over the cost of the renovations, dragging the pace of rebuilding, he said. Ultimately, the theater renovation cost about $27 million, of which FEMA so far has obligated $8.5 million, Nagin said.
The park holding the theater, Louis Armstrong Park, also will reopen. Within it is Congo Square, a clearing where slaves and others congregated and played music in the 1800s and is credited with helping to create jazz.
The park’s reopening is a big development, said Mary Beth Romig, of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We had this major historical destination for the city that visitors wanted to come and see, but the gates were shuttered and park in disarray,” she said. “Having it reopen is another milestone in the city’s recovery.”
City officials hope the Mahalia Jackson Theater’s reopening leads to the revival of the theater district. Discussions to renovate and reopen four nearby theaters, including cinemas — the Saenger, Orpheum, Joy and Loew’s State Palace — are ongoing.
In 2007, state lawmakers passed a law that provides as much as 35% in refundable tax credits toward the cost of theater productions in the state, said Roger Wilson, who is leading an effort to renew New Orleans’ theater district. Opening the Mahalia Jackson Theater offers production companies a chance to try the incentive, he said.
He said he is hopeful that the performing arts center’s comeback will put the city on the nation’s map as a major theater destination.