The following excerpt is from the novel “New Orleansland.” The story takes place one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. LouisCo., a Los Angeles-based entertainment conglomerate, sees an opportunity to privatize the city and turn it into the world’s first urban theme park. Here, the plan is hatched.
L. Peter “Pete” Snard opened the conference room door and reluctantly stepped inside. It was ice cold and dimly lit, the way his boss liked it. The blackout shades were drawn tight against the persistent Los Angeles sun and the zebra wood table was bare except for the overhead projector and a telephone used for dressing down people in far-flung locations.
Snard had just a few minutes to prepare the room for the meeting. He pulled his laptop from his briefcase, plugged it in and placed it beside the projector, counting off the steps as he connected the color-coded cables. The next moment was critical. If the projector worked the meeting would proceed with only routine threats and recriminations. If the projector failed due to some unforeseen technical glitch the full force of his boss’s temper would rain down on him. He could almost feel the hot breath on his neck.
Snard pressed the power buttons and prayed. Of all days, please let this one go off without a hitch. A harsh white light hit the screen and the title slide appeared: “Project Preservation: LAG Confidential.” Success! Snard exhaled for the first time that day, his breath smoking up in the frigid room. He sat down and wiped beads of perspiration from his balding head.
Victor Vargas walked in moments later and locked the door behind him. He was impeccably dressed, as usual, in a bespoke navy blue pinstriped suit with a spread-collared white shirt and a red tie, his mane of thick black hair slicked back in the style of basketball’s Pat Riley. It was hard not to stare. Vargas looked like an aging Latin movie star, or a really hot hit man.
“I see you are ready,” he said to Snard in lieu of hello.
“All systems go,” Snard replied, sounding every bit the lackey he was.
“And no one else is privy to this information?”
“No one,” Snard said. “I did all of the work myself.”
“I hope for your sake that is true,” Vargas replied.
Snard shuddered at the dark inference. Vargas went through executives like toilet paper. His conservations like a contact sport. Snard had survived longer than most, at seven years. But lawyers in particular were fungible. Vargas told him so all the time.
“Do not ever try to deceive me,” Vargas warned Snard on the day he hired him. It was the first time Snard noticed that he never used contractions. “I have worked too hard and achieved too much to be fooled by anyone.
Victor Vargas was a lot of colorful things, but hardly a fool. As president of LouisCo. Attractions Group (LAG), he controlled the largest theme park business in the world. LAG was a division of LouisCo., the family entertainment conglomerate that was as American as the American parts of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. People all over the globe — children in particular — felt a visceral connection to LouisCo. Research showed that 8.5 out of every 10 people on the planet knew and loved LouisCo., whose corporate mission was to “make everyone on earth happy.”
Vargas was a holdover from the period when the company expanded from movies and TV to Louisland theme parks. No one knew exactly where he came from, only that he was one of the last acolytes of company founder Louis Kincaid. To many Vargas seemed as durable as the company’s iconic mascot, Little Louie.
But if Little Louie stood for fun, Vargas was all business. He commanded the room with his bullish frame and dark brooding gaze. His accent lent a stiff old world formality to his speech. When he smiled, which was almost never, it was typically at someone’s expense. The company’s CEO and board of directors gave him an unusually wide berth, partly because of his longevity and partly because they were scared to death of him.
Snard was his longest serving counsel for good reason. He would do anything to please Vargas and had. People called him “Snard the Snake” because he was such a dirt dweller. Snitching on colleagues was child’s play. Snard earned his real bones by beating down pesky environmentalists, labor unions and others who dared to challenge Vargas’s restless expansionism. Ruining people was easy if you had the stomach for it.
Vargas switched off the overhead lights with the tap of a remote control button and turned his attention to the screen.
“‘Project Preservation,’ yes? I like it. It almost makes us sound like fucking do-gooders,” he said.
“Isn’t it delicious?” Snard beamed, failing to mask the girlish excitement in his voice. He so craved Vargas’s approval.
Vargas grimaced and motioned for Snard to get on with it. The consigliere started with a sobering overview of the current business climate.
Internal studies confirmed what they suspected. Theme parks were a mature business. Expansion and acquisition options were played out. They had repurposed their movie franchises to death. Discretionary spending on parks had peaked. Discounting was losing its effectiveness and eroding profits. As a result, Victor Vargas’s long run of success was in jeopardy.
The company had to find new worlds to conquer if it hoped to meet its ambitious revenue goals. But months of research yielded nothing but dead ends. Vargas had squeezed every nickel out of the conventional theme park model. A Hail Mary was needed if they hoped to save the day.
Snard’s solution, an idea of staggering audacity, was tailor-made for someone with double-barreled balls likes Vargas. But even more than that it had the potential to be a personal game changer. Snard was sick of playing the lawyer-henchman-sidekick role. A big idea could catapult him to a real decision-making post and even Vargas’s heir apparent. Being rumpled and small didn’t make him incapable of rising to big challenges.
And he just happened to have a big idea.
The serendipitous way in which he came upon the idea made Snard all the more convinced that fate had come knocking. He was reading a business magazine on the toilet one morning when he ran across an article that described Las Vegas as the world’s biggest theme park. Snard was taken aback at first. Louisland Dubai was the world’s largest theme park; everyone knew that. Las Vegas was just a city masquerading as a theme park. But on further reflection he realized there wasn’t a world of difference.
Louisland parks were like private communities. The company controlled everything that occurred within its walls. Las Vegas was a city that operated like a private theme park community. After decades of trial and error, both knew how to parlay the promise of mindless fun into prosperity.
Snard’s reptile brain wheels spun, causing a word-class bowel movement.
Why not copy the Vegas model and extend the Louisland brand to cities? Actual cities. Crazy? Not when you considered that privatization was already gaining traction. Snard’s research showed that private contractors provided 20% of local government services nationwide, on average. If lawmakers were willing to outsource garbage collection, elder services, drug rehabilitation programs and the like, why not management of the city itself?
The illusion of democracy would have to be preserved for appearances sake. One couldn’t just do away with elected officials, technically. But LAG could assume the operational responsibilities of a city manager. At that point the company’s efficiency experts would take care of business. Those guys could squeeze an entire grove’s worth of juice out of one orange.
The savings they realized would be passed on to residents in the form of tax breaks, new schools, better services. People would be so high on LAG beneficence that they’d hardly notice the subtle changes taking place – a service charge here, an admission fee there, some rides and a fun zone where a park used to be. Most of the new costs would be borne by tourists, anyway.
Snard called his concept “urban re-realization,” the gradual conversion of an American city to the latest cash cow in the LAG portfolio.
Vargas had the broad strokes. Snard had pitched the thing to death, until his increasingly desperate boss conceded that it was their last, best hope. The $64,000 question was, where? The first target would make or break the plan.
The candidates ran the gamut from Detroit, which was deemed beyond hope, to Las Vegas, which had already been picked clean by the gambling interests. The ideal location needed a warm climate and activities for all ages. It didn’t hurt if the place was down on its knees and desperate.
The initial stages of the exploration were highly classified. LAG couldn’t risk the corporate fallout from a public failure or a citizen revolt if the target property turned hostile. And it certainly didn’t want to alert its competitors to its new plan; thus, the top-secret nature of Snard’s assignment.
He and Vargas were the only ones who knew anything about it.
Snard paused before he clicked to the next slide – the big reveal.
“The research unambiguously points to one city,” he intoned dramatically. “That city has all the necessary qualities, plus that certain . . .”
“Get the fuck on with it,” Vargas bellowed.
Click. Snard frowned. What a killjoy this guy was. He was going to say je ne sais quoi for dramatic effect. Oh, well. A new slide filled the screen. It showed a pasty white family dancing behind a group of jazz musicians. A banner overhead said “Jazz Up Your Vacation in New Orleans!”
The picture captured cherished a local tradition known as the “Second Line.” At funerals and special events, people often formed a dance line behind jazz bands. On the screen it just looked like people aimlessly flailing about.
The room went dead silent as Vargas pondered the image on the screen.
“New Orleans?” he finally said softly, his jaw tightening.
“That’s right,” Snard replied, semi-confidently.
“New Orleans?” Vargas repeated, this time more emphatically.
“Yes,” Snard said, hesitation in his voice. “Is there a problem?”
“I do not know,” Vargas said. “You tell me. I agree that it fits our criteria, but it is also one of the most cherished places on earth. Their recent misfortune has only heightened those feelings. Why would you choose such a location? It has been less than a year since Hurricane Karina, has it not?”
Snard considered his options. He could cave and offer up his backup choice, Jacksonville. Nobody cared what happened there. But, no. He was right about this. Now was the time to make his stand. Snard got out of his seat, removed his wrinkled khaki suit coat and took a laser pointer out of his shirt pocket. “Maybe it’s counterintuitive, but bear with me,” he said. “Let’s review the following.”
Key Metrics: Pre and Post Katrina
City Sales Taxes
Vargas scanned the stats, scribbling notes on a legal pad. Snard waited for him to finish, then returned to his seat with his laser.
“It’s ideal,” he said breathlessly, the laser light dancing across the data points on the screen. “A great location that’s burdened by a dwindling population, a tax base that’s fallen into a black hole, and, best of all, a tourism industry that will continue to tank without a major intervention.
“In other words, a perfect storm, so to speak,” Snard chortled.