Ron Forman celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Audubon Institute for Nature, then called Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens when he joined the organization in 1972 as Mayor Moon Landrieu’s city hall liaison.
Five years later, Forman was named president and CEO of Audubon, embarking on a campaign to lead the transformation of the then derided “animal ghetto” into one of the nation’s premier zoos. Since then, he has expanded his Audubon Institute portfolio to include the Aquarium of America, His Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, Louisiana Nature Center, His Woldenburg Park, and the Center for Species Survival.
A tireless cheerleader for the city and its hospitality industry, Forman launched a four-year strategic plan and $100 million capital campaign that included an aquarium overhaul, expansion of Woldenburg Park and redevelopment of two miles of downtown’s riverfront. We are focusing on He recently sat down to discuss his vision for the riverfront and why the city’s tourism sector is more important than ever.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why the strategic plan and new investment? Has Audubon lost visitors to its attractions?
No. But we rely heavily on tourism. It has long been known that, with a population of 1.2 million, New Orleans is rather small, and building world-class attractions, educational facilities, and conservation centers in a city of this size would be limited. We have been working with tourism for quite some time because we knew that if you add 15 million tourists to a population of 1.2 million, you have 16 million spectators. That’s how we grew up. But the only way we can survive is to have a tourism base…because we have to raise about $1 million a week from admissions. As a result, 700 employees had to be laid off. I was struggling with no tourists and everything in lockdown. So we put together a four-year plan. What I learned after Katrina is that when it goes down, you rebuild and reinvest everything you have.
Please tell us about your plans.
I put together a $100 million campaign. 2023 will mark the start of his fourth year in that plan, and this year he will open the facility in a completely new way. Family travel is the fastest growing sector in the entire tourism industry. Renovate the aquarium with such a thought. It is due to open later this year, after which it is expanding Woldenberg Park, part he in 2023 and part he in 2024. The idea is to make the river a destination and create access to the river at the foot of Canal Street, which is pedestrian. Friendly. Next, extend the riverside park two miles (2 miles) to an industrial canal. That’s why we’re opening our riverfront to all neighborhoods, from the Warehouse District to Bywater. If you want to commute by bike or jog, it will be possible. This is no dream. This is happening now, with much work due to be completed by September.
You mentioned two miles down the river. Does that include a warehouse redevelopment on the edge of the French Quarter?
We have a partnership with French Market Corp. to build riverside parks, including the city, and the short story is to build parks there…neighborhoods in the area. So we are working on the plan for that park. One side will be a bike path. The other has a pedestrian walkway and landscaping. There is a green space in between. Keep parts of the wharf and upgrade it for multi-purpose use.I still don’t know what it is
Is it the Esplanade and the docks of Government Nichols Street?
right. And that’s the planning stage we’re in right now. We have a contract to design, build and operate something there. We are working with the mayor and city council and working with the surrounding communities.
Does multi-use mean retail? Entertainment? housing?
What is certain at this point is that we will have bike paths, jogging paths and green spaces, but we will need revenue-generating facilities to cover operating costs. Woldenberg Park is paid for by the aquarium. The zoo pays for Audubon Park. We do not receive operating expenses from the public. If someone walks in and says here he has $70 million, I couldn’t be happier. But no one is doing it. So we have to find other ways to generate revenue.
How does Audubon pay for strategic planning?
All improvements are led by Audubon. But we work with the federal government, the state, the mayor of New Orleans, we work with the business community, we raise our own funding, so we raise money from a variety of sources. Most of our funding (perhaps 70%) comes from the public, such as city bonds, state capital expenditures, or dedicated mileage. The rest will be collected from donors.
You talked about the importance of tourism to the Audubon Institute. Don’t worry he puts all the eggs in one basket. If New Orleans is nothing more than Disney World, where middle-class families can’t afford to live, how can it become a viable city?
There is no doubt that we must diversify our economy if we have the opportunity. It must be in all our hearts. There are times when we do a better job than others. Tulane invests heavily in higher education. Healthcare is growing strongly. I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say that New Orleans isn’t working hard to diversify its economy. Not enough. I do not want to say that there are no problems. We must continue to focus on economic diversification. However, tourism is not only useful for economic development. Branding New Orleans as a great city. It shouldn’t be our only industry, but it’s the fastest growing industry. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. We must keep pedaling and always aim for economic development that brings diversity and opportunity to all.