Another news item from the January edition of OffBeat … This had some folks in the jazz community understandably freaked out, mainly because the initial report cited Opryland, rather than the Grand Ole Opry, as being involved in discussions about the S. Rampart Street neighborhood. Kurt Weigle quickly clarified who the DDD was speaking with (Opryland is long since closed) but when no further comment was offered despite a pretty sizeable online uproar, I got curious. Here’s what I learned:
In late July, NOLA.com reported that the operators of the Grand Ole Opry had been in talks with local stakeholders the Meraux Foundation to rehabilitate three crumbling jazz landmarks on Rampart Street: the Karnofsky store, the Iroquois Theater and the Eagle Saloon. The news came out of an executive committee meeting of the Downtown Development District, where it was reported that construction on a revitalized jazz district on Rampart Street could begin in as little as 18 months.
An online uproar of sorts quickly followed, though the plan’s details remained murky. Facebook, Twitter and Nola.com users decried the evils of cultural commercialization and voiced fears that a block tied to the early days of Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong might end up “Disneyfied” by Gaylord Entertainment, the large Nashville, Tennessee-based entertainment group behind the Opry and its now-defunct theme park counterpart, Opryland.
Those fears, however, may be misplaced. DDD president and CEO Kurt Weigle tells OffBeat the project remains in an early stage of assessment, and that Gaylord Entertainment’s involvement has “not progressed beyond … a conversation” with the Meraux Foundation, the local charitable group that owns the majority of the properties in question.
As for the time frame, Weigle says that once all the other pieces have fallen into place—including decisions about venue use and real estate financing—only then could construction conceivably begin within 18 months.
“We all want that block to be infused with the spirit of jazz,” said Weigle, who has been working for more than a year with the Meraux Foundation to map out what he called “a wide array of options” for the future of the historic area.
While he admitted that creating “another economic anchor for New Orleans” is key, he also stressed that preserving the buildings’ integrity and respecting the neighborhood’s history are priorities. “The details of what [the result of] that’s going to be are really not outlined yet,” Weigle said, adding that “there has been no contemplation whatsoever of demolition.”
Any notion that Gaylord Entertainment might be planning to “build a new facility here,” he said, is unfounded.
Rather, Weigle explained, the conversation has largely focused on the vision of late New Orleans Music Hall of Fame founder Jerome “PopAgee” Johnson, who purchased the Eagle Saloon from the Meraux Foundation prior to his death. Johnson wanted the block’s landmark buildings restored and reopened as museums or music venues that would enliven the South Rampart Street district.
Operators of the restored Little Gem Saloon at 445 S. Rampart St. have a similar wish: to see more music activity on the once bustling block.
Noting Gaylord Entertainment’s “proven track record,” Little Gem talent booker Charles Clark said of the company’s involvement in the planning process: “I think it’s a positive.”