Rita Benson LeBlanc: Pelicans name tied to Louisiana’s resilience and coastal restoration

For Rita Benson LeBlanc, insisting on the right to change the name of the New Orleans Hornets to Pelicans as part of the purchase of the team from the National Basketball Association was all about the area’s resilience in the face of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill and the state’s coastal restoration efforts.

“I’ve really tried to make sure there is a community engagement element to everything that we do, and that any of the branding and marketing that we did meant something,” said LeBlanc, owner and vice chairman of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. She was part of a discussion Thursday on the economic challenges represented by coastal restoration at the biennial State of the Coast conference in New Orleans.

“Of the symbols that you see in the state, you see either the fleur-de-lis (the symbol adopted by the New Orleans Saints) or the pelican,” she said. “Just through our own personal experiences of coming back from Katrina and merging together the community, but also after the BP oil spill, having the Saints go down to Buras participating in the cleanup of the birds and seeing how resilient they were, it just made sense.”

LeBlanc said the NBA provides a world stage to promote support for coastal restoration through the selection of the team’s mascot.

“The NBA is so much more global than the NFL,” she said. This is an Olympic sport.

“And we knew we would have that much more impact with the name by having the players embrace it,” she said. “And at first – they’re almost straight out of high school, they’re so young – but I was really challenging them to say you are what is going to make this cool, and also how the community was able to respond to it: the Pelicans needed to broadcast the strength and resilience of our coast with this name.”

Through the two teams, LeBlanc said she’s also supported several organizations that support coastal restoration, including America’s WETLAND.

LeBlanc has also accompanied leaders of Women of the Storm on lobbying trips to Washington aimed at supporting levee protection and coastal restoration.

“When we went lobbying in DC, I pretty much describe it as being with a bunch of southern Obi-Wan Kenobis,” she said. “Because there were all these charming women that would say, ‘You don’t mind if we bring our documentary photographers in?’” LeBlanc said imitating the Jedi mind-trick speech pattern in the Star Wars movies. “They would just magically do things that normal people just can’t.”

Also speaking during the lunch panel was Greater New Orleans Inc. President Michael Hecht, who said coastal restoration will be a key to retaining and attracting businesses to southeastern Louisiana, and the restoration industry already is becoming the state’s newest growth industry.

“Stabilizing and restoring the coast is our existential issue as a community,” Hecht told the more than 800 attending the final day of the conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. “If we do not do it, all of the things that we are announcing, all of the ribbon-cuttings, all of the rankings, all of the headlines, is just going to be rearranging the deckchairs.

“We know that we have to make sure we have a place to live so that we can have an economy in the future,” he said.

Hecht said he realized that the state’s coastal challenges could be turned into benefits after studying the way the Netherlands has created an international water management industry that represents 4 percent of its gross domestic product.

“We have actually more dynamic weather conditions, more volatile conditions,” he said. “Maybe we can be the Dutch of North America, except with a nicer accent.”

As proof of that possibility, he said, one need only look at how Louisiana companies have won more than $300 million in contracts to help New York and New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Hecht said his business support group has labeled this new industrial and service sector “emerging environmental.”

But the business community must also be called upon to assure that money spent on coastal restoration – such as billions of dollars the state expects to receive as its share of Clean Water Act fines resulting from the BP oil spill under the federal RESTORE Act – is spent properly.

“Because I truly do think as we try to implement the coastal Master Plan, this is our best and our last chance to do it right,” he said. “The business community has to stand up and make sure that we actually do it.”

Philip Gunn, managing director of the New Orleans area office of the Postlethwaite & Netterville accounting firm, warned that just as businesses left the New Orleans area after Katrina because they perceived increased risk of flooding, an aggressive coastal restoration program will be necessary to stave off future defections.

“From 2005 to 2008, the two words you’d think about for south Louisiana were apprehension and uncertainty, and now the two words you think about for south Louisiana are energy and enthusiasm,” Gunn said.

A key reason for the attitudinal turnaround is the completion of the improvements to the hurricane levee system.

“We need to make sure we retain that energy and enthusiasm and not let the uncertainty creep back in,” he said. “The completion, the advancement, the act of putting shovel to the ground – coastal restoration, if you will – is part of reducing and making sure that uncertainty doesn’t come back.”

That’s because the business community that is now accepting of today’s level of protection will change with time.

“There will be a time, whether three years or five years from now, when they’ll have outside directors, they’ll have those people who are not homegrown, and they will have to make decisions for their shareholders and for the growth of their companies, and to reduce risk,” he said. “And we have to have our act together, all the constituent groups coming together.

During her talk, LeBlanc also let the audience in on the behind-the-scenes story surrounding what she called Pierre the Pelican’s decision to have radical rhinoplasty surgery to reshape his beak. The “pre-surgery” Pierre became an object of derision when unveiled at the first season game following the team’s renaming.

“There were a couple of people in our office that totally took it personally that we had negative press” about Pierre’s beak not looking like a real pelican, she said. “But, I mean, I’m from here and anything negative, I’m going to turn into a positive. So, like whoopee, so much attention for our mascot!

“So we were working on the new head,” she said. “We had to figure out how to make it great, attractive, and we were listening to the person who’s in it and what he hears everyone say about him.

“Apparently, everybody really liked the Mohawk (hair — or feather — cut), but we needed to fix the beak,” LeBlanc said. “Well, the plastic surgery worked, and it’s apparently the first mascot in the history of sports that’s done that.”

Read the full article here: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2014/03/rita_benson_leblanc_pelicans_n.html