New Orleans to house Essence Music Festival

George Rainey has been cooking food for the Essence Music Festival since its inception 12 years ago, missing last year only because the event took place in Houston.

And when the Essence festival returns Thursday to the Louisiana Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Rainey said he can't wait to resume doing what he does best.

"We are ready to do what we know how to do - take care of people," said Rainey, who operates Rainey's Restaurant and Catering.

"It's a different thing when New Orleans hosts it," Rainey said. "We thank Houston for doing so last year, but we know how to do it better than any other place in the world."

Rainey's business is one of many that will benefit from the festival, which runs through Saturday and features top-name performers.

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who heads state tourism efforts, said Essence generates up to $150 million (110.4 million EUR) each year in economic impact. The festival recently agreed to a deal to keep it in the city through 2009.

Essence, held annually over the Fourth of July weekend, is a nightly celebration of hip-hop, R&B and gospel music in the Superdome while the convention center plays host to free, daily "empowerment" seminars with top voices in the black community tackling social issues.

In addition, artists and other vendors will sell their wares at a marketplace in the convention center where celebrity meet-and-greets and author book signings also will be held.

The settings are significant.

Both buildings sheltered thousands of people after Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. Storm damage left the buildings incapable of hosting the 2006 Essence festival, which was moved to Houston's Reliant Park.

The Superdome reopened in September 2006 after a $185 million (136 million EUR) renovation, and conventions and meetings have returned to the Morial center.

Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., which owns the event, said it was "important for the festival to participate in the rebirth of New Orleans."

A portion of all concert ticket proceeds will benefit the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools of New Orleans, which teach reading enrichment, art and music, she said.

In 2005, a record-breaking 232,000 people streamed into the city to enjoy big-name talent. This year's lineup includes the contemporary sounds of Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown and Ludacris interwoven with the old school tunes of the Isley Brothers, the O'Jays, Lionel Richie, and Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly - the act that has closed the festival each year since it was launched in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine.

For the city's tourism industry, still rebounding from Katrina, Essence is a much needed summertime tonic.

"This is the last really big, major event in the city before the fall," said Wayne Baquet, who owns Li'l Dizzy's Cafe and will have two food booths in the Superdome. "August gets really slow and if it wasn't for Essence, businesses like mine would struggle in the summer."

Jewelry designer Chester Allen, whose home in New Orleans' Broadmoor neighborhood was inundated with six feet (1.8 meters) of water, said when he sets up his festival booth it will be his first time back in the convention center since Katrina.

"Everything that happens, happens for a reason," said Allen, owner of Elemental Designs. "The memories that are there, inside those buildings, won't just go away. At the same time we, as a community, need to move forward and establish new memories."

Frank Lewis, an artist who works mostly with oils and acrylics and whose clients include singers Erykah Badu and India.arie, said the festival will provide a much-needed spark for the city.

"Essence coming back is just beautiful," said Lewis, who also will have a booth in the convention center. "It's a big help for the city and really gives a chance for New Orleans artists to show what they can do on the big stage."

Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said about 80 percent of Essence's hotel room block of about 8,000 rooms was sold as of Monday.

Romig said Essence, with attendance projected at 200,000, will continue to aid the city's tourism rebound. New Orleans drew healthy crowds at Mardi Gras and for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival earlier this year.

"Every time we host a marquis event, it just proves once again that we're doing it and doing it right," Romig said.