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National

In Louisiana, Cheaper Gas Can Pump People Full Of Anxiety

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Most Americans, honestly, you really can't help but feel happy about falling gas prices - little smile. But that slide is causing anxiety for people who bet on an oil boom. We have two reports on the potential downside of falling gas prices. In Oklahoma, we'll meet some small-business owners getting ready for a bust. That's in a few moments.

But first, to New Orleans where people are worried. When the price of oil fell hard in the 1980s, it brought the local economy down with it. But as Eve Troeh from member station WWNO reports, The Big Easy seems better prepared today.

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: In downtown New Orleans, throw some Mardi Gras beads, and you'll hit a tall building built by oil, like this one, a stark, 17-story rectangle with green panels up the side.

TOM LONG: Of course this was Texaco. This building is the earliest international-style building. It was designed in 1951, and it was built and opened in '53. It was Texaco's New Orleans headquarters.

TROEH: I'm on the roof with Tom Long. He says his dad was a petroleum engineer when offshore drilling started in the Gulf of Mexico.

LONG: And he actually worked in this building. When I was born, he was working offshore and developing those first shallow water rigs.

TROEH: Those rigs launched an industry that grew to be nearly half Louisiana's economy. But Long wasn't at the building for anything oil-related. He was giving tours for the real estate developers who just gave the Texaco building a new chapter.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

TROEH: A jazz trio played as city officials cut the ribbon. After a $35-million renovation, Texaco's old headquarters is now public housing. It holds more than a hundred subsidized apartments for seniors. Jacqueline Hughes Mooney is one.

JACQUELINE HUGHES MOONEY: I'm on the 15th floor. I call it the near penthouse in the sky - not quite the penthouse but the near penthouse.

TROEH: Living downtown gives seniors like her walking access to shopping and theaters refurbished since Hurricane Katrina.

MOONEY: It's just much more vital and much more alive. There's so many things to do. It'd be impossible to be over here and be bored.

TROEH: She sees herself as part of a city in renaissance. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans was already in a pretty bad place - a shrinking population, waning economy and high crime rate, the lingering effects of 1986 when oil fell by half and punched a hole in the city's finances.

PETER RICCHIUTI: You know, I'd say every 10th building was boarded up.

TROEH: Tulane University business Professor Peter Ricchiuti. He says the skyline of sleek, modern buildings that rose during the oil boom - the Amoco building, the Exxon building - they emptied out as oil companies cut staff and merged. That Texaco building turned into apartments? It sat empty almost 20 years. Ricchiuti says it's tempting to wait out higher oil rather than diversify.

RICCHIUTI: Oil is so attractive because when it hits, when it's good, nothing else can be as good.

TROEH: New Orleans learned not to count on oil. Those jobs mostly didn't come back, and no other big industry swooped in to replace them. Those skyscrapers have slowly filled with smaller ventures, like Victor Trahan's architecture firm in One Shell Square.

VICTOR TRAHAN: It's a well-known building in New Orleans and the South. And it had that kind of monumental, large, spatial condition that was attractive to us.

TROEH: Trahan likes its white, marble-clad columns and 18-foot windows. The iconic tower was built for Shell, which still has offices in it. From the ground floor, Trahan and staff plan projects around the world.

TRAHAN: What better, more rich, more meaningful place than New Orleans? I mean, the culture is just so powerful.

TROEH: Culture is a very different economic resource, but it's what the city's counting on to weather the storm of cheap oil this time. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.