POWER BROKERS COURTED IN N.O.
Published: Sunday, April 19, 1992
Byline: By TYLER BRIDGES Staff writer
March 11 was an important day for Christopher Hemmeter. It was the day he made his New Orleans debut.
He began by holding a luncheon for 25 business leaders at Brennan's. He commanded their attention by entering on the arm of state Senate President Sammy Nunez and being introduced by Kevin Reilly, the state's economic development chief. He established his credentials by touting the lap-of-luxury resorts he has developed in Hawaii. And in an offhand way, he mentioned his friendship with former President Carter.
Then he segued into his billion-dollar plan to reshape the New Orleans riverfront, with a lavish casino on the site of the Rivergate. He said his plan would create thousands of jobs and revitalize the city.
He ended the day with a cocktail party for 400 at the Aquarium of the Americas. Ron Forman was the host, but Hemmeter paid the $10,000 cost. "Meet Our New Neighbors - Mr. and Mrs. Christopher B. Hemmeter," the invitations said.
Since he arrived in New Orleans about a year ago, Hemmeter has tried to build an unusual coalition of allies, ranging from Forman - darling of Uptown New Orleans, a bastion of casino opposition - to Mayor Sidney Barthelemy - the city's strongest gambling proponent.
Hemmeter, who will unveil his full plans April 28, has moved quickly and deftly in his effort to become the choice of New Orleans' power elite if the Legislature approves a single New Orleans casino.
Even if he succeeds, he may have to contend with Caesars World, which is thought to have the inside track because the company has close ties with Gov. Edwards and has hired his confidant, Bob D'Hemecourt, as its lobbyist.
Still, there was a sign last week that Hemmeter's work is paying off. Edwards' allies in the state Senate introduced a bill to grant a 100-year monopoly to whatever company is picked for the New Orleans casino - an idea Hemmeter has been promoting.
*** Strategy wins converts ***
Operating from a suite in the Windsor Court Hotel, Hemmeter, 52, has adopted a textbook strategy for winning over the disparate interest groups that control the power centers of New Orleans.
The consummate developer with a savvy sense of politics, he has spent his time refining his plans. He has sized up property and mastered the quirky ways of doing business in New Orleans. He has figured out how to win over potential opponents by incorporating their concerns into his plans.
He has courted the powers-that-be at intimate dinners at the toniest restaurants in town. He flew a group of heavy-hitters - Councilman Lambert Boissiere, Barthelemy, Nunez and Jefferson Parish District Attorney John Mamoulides and their wives - to Hawaii for a posh weekend. He flew Edwards and his companion, Candy Picou, to Aspen, Colo., on his private jet.
And he has spent freely to hire top architects, big-time lawyers and the governor's confidant - super-lobbyist Billy Broadhurst.
Hemmeter touts his plan not as a casino, but as an elegant redevelopment of the riverfront. He talks about turning Canal Street into the Champs Elysees and constructing a replica of the Vieux Carre's beloved French Opera House near the river.
*** Powers of persuasion ***
In a city starved for new investment, even skeptics have welcomed Hemmeter, whose personal fortune is estimated at more than $200 million.
While his money carries clout, his soft sell and silky charm are just as dazzling. Those who have met him invariably mention his passionate interest in their views, his ability to listen closely and his promise to be sensitive to their concerns.
When he met Monday with four French Quarter preservationists and their councilwoman, Jackie Clarkson, they were impressed with his interest in protecting the historic area from overdevelopment.
"All of us have been looking at this with a wary eye," preservationist Gary R. Williams said. "But he's not cut from the same developer cloth as we usually see. He's a good listener, he had done his homework and he talked about the traffic problems and his disdain for T-shirt shops. He said that what he wants to do will coincide with what we'd like. All of us left there feeling encouraged and hopeful."
One way Hemmeter reassured the preservationists was by saying that he had rejected a plan to put video poker machines on the top two floors of the Jax Brewery, which he has an option to buy.
*** Boissiere backs builder ***
Boissiere, Hemmeter's point man on the City Council, is among those who have fallen under his spell. He has set up meetings for the developer with other council members and with Pat Fretwell, acting assistant director for the city Planning Commission.
"When you talk to him, you feel like you've known him for a long time," Boissiere said. "He doesn't act like he's trying to shove anything down your throat. He asks, `What's your vision for the city?' It looks like this guy can deliver."
Forman, who not only sponsored the Aquarium event but also escorted Hemmeter around town to meet the editors of The Times-Picayune, Gambit and CityBusiness, said the developer has been steadily winning converts.
"When people don't know who he is and haven't met him, their response is negative," Forman said. "But when they meet him, he wins them over one by one. He is batting 1,000 percent."
Forman is hoping for a home run with Hemmeter in the form of a $10 million donation to the Audubon Institute's Riverfront 2000 project, which would convert wharves into parks and museums.
"I say give this guy a chance," Forman said. "If he comes out with a good plan, it will take off. If he screws up, we should kick him hard."
*** Councilwoman skeptical ***
One person who has resisted Hemmeter's charms is City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, who spurned an invitation to a dinner at the Windsor Court sponsored by Barthelemy and paid for by Hemmeter. But the developer didn't give up. Two weeks later, he visited Wilson at City Hall, accompanied by Eddie Sapir, a New Orleans Municipal Court judge who is working for Hemmeter as a consultant.
"He said he was hiring all the best people," Wilson said. "When he named them, I said, `Those are all the political hacks, the people who get all the political jobs.' He was taken aback."
When Hemmeter visited Boissiere immediately afterward, Wilson's lack of enthusiasm had clearly left its mark.
"He was aggravated and upset," Boissiere said. "He said he had never been treated that way by a public official."
Four days later, Hemmeter sent Wilson a five-page letter seeking common ground. "We share your views with regards to the importance of education," it said. "We share a common interest in politics . . . I share your interest in culture and the arts . . . I share many of your concerns about casino gaming."
In the letter to Wilson, an ardent Republican, Hemmeter also noted that President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were guests at his Hawaiian home in 1986.
"He must want what he wants very much to go to all that trouble for me," Wilson said of the 90-minute meeting and the follow-up letter.
Illustration: Developer Christopher Hemmeter sits overlooking the riverfront, which he hopes to reshape with his resort and casino plan.
STAFF PHOTO BY G. ANDREW BOYD.
ON THE HEMMETER TEAM
Robert M. Steeg, partner in the firm of Steeg and O'Connor; active in riverfront development and transactions for many years.
David L. Stone, partner in the firm of Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann & Hutchinson; was a high school classmate of Hemmeter's partner, Daniel Robinowitz.
Ronald Filson, partner in Eskew Filson Architects; resigning this spring as dean of Tulane University's School of Architecture; helped design the Piazza d'Italia and the world's fair.
Steven Bingler, head of Concordia Architects; renovated the Jax Brewery and its additions; worked on Woldenberg Park and the Aquarium of the Americas.
Eddie Sapir, judge, New Orleans Municipal Court; former New Orleans city councilman.
Billy Broadhurst, confidant and former law partner of Gov. Edwards; advised Edwards on plan for constitutional convention to revise the state's tax structure.
Steve Rittvo, co-owner of Urban Systems Inc., a consulting firm specializing in traffic that has worked for the Dock Board and New Orleans International Airport.
John Kushner, one of the top commercial real estate brokers in New Orleans; represented the Latter family interests for years.
Copyright © The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.