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A new master plan calls for major changes in Kenner’s Rivertown


by Mary Sparacello, The Times-Picayune

Monday December 22, 2008, 7:10 AM

Kenner’s historic Rivertown has never become the destination spot envisioned when it was redeveloped in 1982.

Hopes have always been high for Kenner’s historic Rivertown.

The 16-block area of family-friendly museums and shops opened in 1982 under then-mayor and current Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard. His vision was a destination spot for tourists that would generate money for the city, while at the same time reviving a desolated stretch where the city’s founders first set up shop.

In the past 26 years, each succeeding mayor has tried to find a way to bring more visitors to Rivertown.

Louis Congemi, now a parish councilman, developed Heritage Park and built a planetarium during his eight years as mayor. Phil Capitano developed a popular music series in the park. Current Mayor Ed Muniz expanded the series and commissioned a master plan for the area.

Hopes remain high. But Rivertown, in many ways, is no more a magnet for visitors than when it opened.

"We’ve got to come up with a better attraction for Rivertown — better restaurants, better shops, even better museums, " said Kenner Councilman Marc Johnson, whose district includes the area.

Officials and Rivertown supporters remain optimistic that Muniz’s $53,000 master plan could finally provide the seeds for real change — if money can be located to take the ideas from the pages of the study to the historic south Kenner district.

But Ernesto Cortazar won’t be around to see whether the master plan works.

Lured by the potential in Rivertown, the north Kenner resident opened Cortazar’s Delicatessen in June 2007. But by the end of the year, his store will be out of business.

"I stuck it out as long as I could, but I saw no progress, " he said. "They have so much potential in Rivertown, but they don’t exploit it."

With the nation in recession, Muniz said now is not the time to spend the money on improvements recommended in the master plan.

The plan calls for renovations to the current design of Rivertown to make it more attractive for tourists and locals. But all the plan’s ideas come with a price tag.

"Where’s the money going to come from?" Muniz asked, adding that the city’s sales tax figures are down from last year.

Changing the exhibits and adding new ones are an expensive proposition, Congemi said. During his tenure as mayor, Rivertown saw the most traffic when money was spent to improve the attractions.

"But it faded because we couldn’t continue to invest what we needed to invest, " he said, adding that Rivertown is a quality-of-life investment. "There are some things that are just meant for the public to enjoy rather than become money-makers."

Kenner’s yearly subsidy in Rivertown is about a half-million dollars, city officials have said.

Museum makeovers

The city is applying for a number of state grants, including one for the Native American Museum and one for the Music in the Park concert series. Another grant request is for a study to evaluate the museums and seek ways to improve them.

The master plan recommends consolidating the museums onto a side street and converting the properties that now face Williams Boulevard and Rev. Richard Wilson Drive, formerly Third Street, into profitable retail space.

Successful businesses would attract more visitors and increase the museums’ ticket sales, but current store owners say their businesses depend on museum attendance.

"Because they’re not busy, it makes us not busy, " said Betty Brock, who opened Amour de Cafe in a Rivertown strip mall four months ago. "It’s such a beautiful area. It’s so family-oriented. You don’t have to fight with downtown."

Another issue holding back the museums has been the damage many attractions suffered during Hurricane Katrina. The Saints Hall of Fame, which was one of the area’s most popular museums, is in its second year at its new home in the Superdome, and the Space Station has not reopened. The water-damaged stuffed animals from the Wildlife and Fisheries museum are back from a Florida taxidermist, but they aren’t yet on display.

In addition to consolidating the museums, the master plan recommends developing a farmers market and switching city buildings, such as the old Kenner High School a few blocks away, to commercial use.

‘Overlooked’ area

The plan’s recommendations could be the key to the area’s success.

"I’m hopeful that once we put these particular (suggestions) in place, it will spur the foot traffic and will bring people into Rivertown, " Johnson said. "I think it’s our responsibility as city officials to find a way to make Rivertown more successful."

Gail Yeadon, president of the nonprofit Friends of Rivertown, said she hopes to see some movement on the master plan.

"I’d hate to see money wasted on a study, " she said. "I’d like to see progress."

Yeadon said the museums are high-quality and that there have been forward-looking ideas coming out of Rivertown’s leadership, such as turning the old art gallery into a room people can rent for birthday parties.

Not all the news from Rivertown is bleak. New Orleans developer Joshua Bruno this year renovated a 68-unit assisted-living complex into 45 middle- to upper-income apartments a half-mile down the road.

"Rivertown has really been overlooked for so many years, " Bruno said, showing a reporter around the complex at 1039 Rev. Richard Wilson Drive, with some rooms boasting flat-screen televisions and river views. "Hopefully, this will change people’s expectations about Rivertown."

Bruno said he sees buying opportunities in former homesteads that Louis Armstrong International Airport bought as part of a noise buyout.

"We see a great opportunity with some of the vacant airport buyout land, " Bruno said, adding that the land near the river is the highest in Kenner. "We need to build toward higher ground."

Mary Sparacello can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 504.467.1726.

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