NEW ORLEANS (AP) President Bush was criticized for not mentioning the plight of New Orleans in past State of the Union addresses, but in his latest he announced that a high-profile summit is coming to this business-hungry town, and that he will attend.

The announcement Monday that three North America leaders will meet here was applauded by city leaders who see it as a chance to pack hotels and send a national message that New Orleans is closer to rebounding.

"We'll definitely take it," said Mary Beth Romig, spokesman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There's been some question about our readiness and I think this is a great signal."

Bush said Monday night that he, the Prime Minister of Canada, and the President of Mexico will visit New Orleans for the fourth annual North American Leader's Summit, an event in which the heads of state focus on border issues, trade and environmental policy. He did not announce exact dates for the summit.

"I am pleased to announce that in April we will host this year's North American Summit of Canada, Mexico and the United States in the great city of New Orleans," Bush said during his speech, in which he reaffirmed a pledge to strengthen the Gulf Coast.

Last year's summit took place in Quebec, Canada, and drew more than 1,000 labor and conservation activists. But even Bush's biggest critics said the event and the independent policy forums and business seminars expected to be organized around it will benefit the city.

"I hope the President will commit to becoming a stronger partner this year and to cutting through the red tape that has slowed our progress," said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who applauded the announcement during Bush's speech. "But regardless, the Gulf Coast is coming back, and this will be a great opportunity to showcase those efforts."

Bush's announcement in his final State of the Union speech comes two months after the Presidential Debate Commission said the city was not ready to host one of the debates.

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina, about two-thirds of the population has returned, but the trend is slowing, demographers have said.

Rent has increased by over 40 percent since the disaster. About half of the homeowners who were promised money from the federally funded and state run Road Home program have yet to see their grants. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency's efforts to rebuild infrastructure have been mired in bureaucratic delays.

The chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which administers the Road Home program, was optimistic despite the frustrations of tens of thousands of Katrina victims still waiting to return home.

"This is an historic time for our city and state, a time of unprecedented hope and confidence in Louisiana's recovery," said Dr. Norman C. Francis. "Tonight's announcement certainly sends that message, and underscores the fact that Louisiana is once again open for business."

Gary LaGrange, the president of the Port of New Orleans, said he hoped the summit would advance free trade that will keep loading docks busy. But no matter what they discuss, the event will draw business executives and policy experts to a needy city, he said.

"It opens the doors," he said. "People love to come to New Orleans."

On the Net:

New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau:

http://www.neworleanscvb.com