Parking police cars at problem gas stations. Sending descriptions of vacant New Orleans East properties – and the benefits of doing business in the area – to Fortune 500 companies. And spreading the word about the East’s amenities, instead of broadcasting its ills.
Those are just some of the steps New Orleans East business owners pondered at a recent strategy session aimed at improving the area’s prospects. The event, held Thursday at PJs Coffee on Read Boulevard, was hosted by the Greater New Orleans East Business Alliance, a coalition of area businesses that will mark its first anniversary in February.
It has already made waves: Last year, its members persuaded 1,000 residents to ask Kentucky-based national steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse to open a location in the East, an effort that, while unsuccessful, showed the group’s organizing muscle.
Elected leaders are paying attention. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who is up for re-election this fall, came to Thursday’s meeting armed with an arsenal of ideas for the group.
“Anything that y’all put together for tourism, I will put enough money behind it to make it successful,” he vowed, citing his office’s marketing of the 2022 Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, which he said helped drive record-breaking crowds to that event. “Economic development is tourism. And tourism is economic development.”
Nungesser also touted work he did as Plaquemines Parish president that he said New Orleans East may want to copy, such as pitching major companies on the parish’s available properties or encouraging the region’s petrochemical facilities to contract with its small businesses.
Also in attendance were City Council member Eugene Green, who represents a sliver of the East along and near Downman Road, and state Rep. Delisha Boyd, D-New Orleans, who represents Algiers but showed up to support the effort. Former state Sen. Wesley Bishop also attended on behalf of council member Oliver Thomas, who represents most of the East; Bishop is Thomas’ policy and governmental affairs director.
New Orleans East is home to more than 75,000 residents and several large businesses, including Folgers Coffee Co., Faubourg Brewery, and the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility. But since Hurricane Katrina ravaged its landscape in 2005, the area has struggled to attract big-box retailers, losing many to the nearby suburbs.
That’s in large part because national retailers often rely on income and crime data that paint a less-than-favorable image of the area, said Stephanie Chambliss, PJs franchise owner and a coalition member.
“These people don’t come down themselves and see what we are telling them. They are pulling demographic data from cell phone pings and different things. And then, from what they see in the news regarding crime, it’s like, ‘Oh no, you don’t want to go to New Orleans – especially the East,'” she said.
The area’s median income is about $33,000 per year, a notch below the city’s $41,000 average. An analysis that accounts for population size showed that in 2022, the East’s rates of armed robberies and burglaries was actually lower than that of the rest of the city, though the East’s murder rate was almost twice as high as elsewhere. The East also had a higher rate of non-fatal shootings than the rest of New Orleans.
Nungesser added that an understaffed Police Department might do well to park some of its cars in highly visible areas, such as gas stations, where crime has been a problem. “I’m not saying park it there for a month. But maybe a week… There’s that comfort level of seeing a police presence,” he said.
The city has earmarked $300,000 for three additional NOPD officers to serve New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, according to Thomas’ office. Another $500,000 has been allocated for litter cleanup in those areas. Soon, the city will install new signage to demarcate the East that will be visible from the interstate, Bishop said.
Perhaps the area’s biggest challenge, coalition member Psytia Jordan said, is perception. “We have to teach our children how to take pride in their community, and how to stop bashing their community,” she said. “They need to stop using social media to talk about the gunshots they heard last night.”
Green added that the area’s leaders also need to promote its positives, such as last month’s opening of Heaven and Earthly Realms Beauty Salon and Gift Shop on Downman Road. He said he doesn’t believe that retailers are deterred by crime in the area, as some residents have suggested.
“People move their businesses to Mexico, in the middle of cartels,” he said, to some chuckles in the room. “If they can make money, they find a way to get around those other concerns. We just have to make sure that they can keep making money.”