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Commerce prez says N.O. rebuilding to pick up

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The president of the New Orleans Chamber of
Commerce said Tuesday she expects the rebuilding of New Orleans to
accelerate this summer and for the city to be far enough along in
its recovery to resume hosting the Hornets by the 2007-08 season.

Sandra Gunner, the president and CEO of the New Orleans Chamber,
spoke at the Oklahoma state Capitol one day after Hornets owner
George Shinn expressed disappointment in the city's rebuilding.

After Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin included a mention of
Oklahoma City's temporary hosting of the Hornets this season,
Gunner commented about the team in her opening remarks, referring
to them as "our Hornets."

"I want to make it clear we do intend to take them back,"
Gunner told an audience gathered for a small business event.

Gunner followed that by saying she expected Oklahoma City to get
another NBA team to replace the Hornets.

On Monday, Shinn told The Associated Press in an interview that
"I have seen virtually very, very little improvement and it's very
discouraging and very depressing."

Gunner said the severity of Hurricane Katrina -- she called it
the most severe natural disaster in U.S. history -- caused recovery
efforts to be slow at first.

"The magnitude of it was such that it took a little more
planning up front. We expect in June a lot of people are going to
start rushing back," Gunner said in an interview with The
Associated Press after her speech.

"School's out, so they prefer leaving the kids in whatever
school for the year instead of pulling them out. Secondly, we will
have had our mayoral election by then so we will know who our
leadership is going to be, and therefore that leadership will go on
and handle the critical decisions."

New Orleans voters will choose between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin
and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in a runoff election May 20. Shinn also
suggested in his interview that the mayoral election might be a
turning point.

"It's really very frustrating. It's just a bad situation,"
Shinn said. "Hopefully, once they get settled with a mayor --
whoever they choose -- some new stuff or some positive things can
start happening."

Shinn spoke of areas that do not have electricity and do not
have grocery stores open and suggested that traffic problems would
make it difficult to live in New Orleans.

"I think it's been very slow and it has been very frustrating
but just based on all of the different entities and things that are
coming together, I would say we're anticipating June ... at that
time we anticipate people will be coming back," Gunner said.

Gunner said the biggest impediment to New Orleans restoring its
population is that there isn't enough housing for employees who
want to return.

"The population is going to be dependent upon available
housing. So that's going to grow slowly and in increments," Gunner
said.

"There will be some people who are going to choose not to come
back because they have been exposed to different worlds. Many of
them are in very good jobs in places and their kids in very good
schools. And that's not to say they won't ultimately come back but
just due to the kindness of strangers, people are finding they can
jump-start a new life."

Gunner pointed out that the Hornets had strong attendance at
three games in New Orleans this March "even in a crisis." The
team will play six home games in New Orleans next season, with the
remaining 35 in Oklahoma City.

The NBA and the Hornets have said they plan for the team to
return to New Orleans in 2007-08.

"We certainly are going to be ready for a basketball team,"
Gunner said.