The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The board of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center voted unanimously on Wednesday to extend the contract of the Convention Center’s president, Michael Sawaya, for another five years. 

His main task over the next five years will be to finish off three massive development projects, worth over $1 billion combined, all of which have hit significant snags over the last two years. 

‘We’ve all discussed the importance of everything we have ahead of us and all of the initiatives we have going, and I think it’s important we solidify Mike in his leadership to help guide us through that process,” said board president Jerry Reyes. 

Sawaya was first hired to run the Convention Center in 2018. He came to New Orleans via San Antonio, where he ran the city government’s Convention and Sports Facilities Department and oversaw major expansions of that city’s convention center and the Alamodome stadium. 

Sawaya’s contract calls for a $300,000 annual base salary. The extension increases his maximum annual bonus from $20,000 to $25,000. 

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Sawaya said he was “blessed and honored.”

“This is the honor of my life to be in this role, and I’m very much committed to the same things I committed to when I came here,” he said. “And I appreciate being given more time to bring those things to fruition.”

Currently, the Convention Center is juggling three major ongoing projects: a $557 million renovation of the existing Convention Center building, developing an “anchor” hotel attached to the center and creating a sprawling “entertainment district” on the vacant lots that lie on the building’s upriver side that will include shops, venues, restaurants, housing, a street grid and more.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began nearly two years ago — causing heavy losses in the city’s tourism industry — all of those projects have hit significant roadbumps, but Sawaya said on Wednesday that despite the still-uncertain future of travel and conventions amid the ongoing pandemic, all of those projects are still moving forward. 

The center’s biggest source of funding is hotel taxes, which fell massively when the pandemic hit. The mass cancellation of conventions, travel and events took away even more revenue. In the first six months of the pandemic, the Convention Center had to use $50 million from its reserves to stay afloat. 

In the initial month of the pandemic, despite the uncertainty at the time, Sawaya initially continued pushing forward with the projects. The decision was controversial, especially when it came to the hotel and entertainment district — two projects heavily dependent on tourism and travel and which, to some, seem to go beyond what the Convention Center was originally set up to do. 

But in mid-April 2020, when former State Representative Walt Leger took over as Board Chair, he announced he was pushing back key board votes on the entertainment district. And soon after announced that the hotel project was being put on hold as well. And in October 2020, the consortium of hotel developers pulled out of the project entirely.

That pause was short-lived, however. In March 2021, the Convention Center selected a master developer for the entertainment district project. And in October 2021, The Times-Picayune reported that Sawaya had restarted negotiations with the hotel developers for a smaller version of the hotel, down from 1,200 rooms to 500. 

On Wednesday, Sawaya and consultant Tom Morsch said they were still trying to get the hotel development off the ground.

“Mike and I and others are cautiously optimistic that the authority may be in a position to re-engage with the developer that had been selected at the 8-acre site with new ideas and new proposals for how to get that project off the ground,” Morsch said. “We’re hopeful, very hopeful, that in the next several months we’ll have additional progress to report to you in respect to adding to the hotel supply.”

The $557 million building and campus renovations have generally attracted less scrutiny, since they fall more directly under the agency’s original purpose — maintaining and operating a convention center. It calls for updated meeting rooms, roof repairs, bathroom renovations and more.

But that project also hit a snag after allegations of impropriety emerged in the board’s selection of a “construction manager at risk” to lead the project. Two of the losing bidders alleged that the board had broken the state’s Open Meetings Law and that one of the members of the selection committee had a conflict of interest. 

Those firms made complaints to the state Attorney General’s office, which in turn issued a letter to the Convention Center board saying that the board did indeed appear to violate the open meetings law, and that the office was opening an investigation.

In October, the same contract was again thrown into doubt when a Civil District Court judge temporarily blocked the board from finalizing it. One of the losing bidders had filed a lawsuit alleging that the winning bidder should have been disqualified because they weren’t properly licensed in Louisiana. 

The court ruled in the Convention Center’s favor in December, and according to center officials, negotiations are now back on track.

Some of the hurdles for these projects have been cleared, while others still remain. But Sawaya’s contract extension indicates that despite the massive changes brought by the pandemic, it still intends to push forward with its pre-pandemic development plans.  

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...