(Note: I was inspired to write this post after reading Cliff's neighborhood wish list over the weekend. Of course, I forgot to mention that on the first edition of this post. Luckily, Leigh reminded me.)
New Orleans East has 71,000 residents, according to current figures, and only has one* grocery store. The next closest I know about is the Winn-Dixie just west of the Danziger Bridge in Gentilly. (For my Georgia readers, that would be like having to drive from St. Simons Island to Brunswick; or from East Athens to Epps Bridge - every time you wanted to pick up food.)
On the occasions in which I drive through the East, the business corridors on the major thoroughfares look like they're stuck somewhere between 8 Mile and 28 Days Later. Back when I worked for the RSD, we did a lot of training sessions at Sarah T. Reed High School, and the view of the area on the commute was less than flattering. Hearing the news this weekend that 71,000 people live there comes as a jaw-dropping, knock-down shock.
That's nearly the non-student population of Athens, Georgia.
Despite the fact that the area would be the sixth largest city in the state of Louisiana, with a median income higher than the rest of Orleans Parish, commercial investment has been very, very slow. No one seems able, or willing to tell residents why. The "big" investors are all public/private initiatives that have yet to get off the ground, and not many "small" businesses have flocked to the area to get a foothold.
There are a host of reasons why:
From a geographic standpoint, the area is prone to catastrophic flooding during tropical storm events, and anywhere near the coast this close to a disaster the scale of Katrina or a scare the scale of Gustav is going to take that into consideration when looking to invest. This is especially true the smaller the business (and the more at stake). While it isn't OK for a Rouses' or a national retailer to lose a location to catastrophic flooding, they can still usually take the hit; they'll continue making revenue from other, unaffected locations while they wait for the insurance company to settle. They know the insurance company isn't going to dick them around as much, because of the scale of business. This is why McDonald's, IHOP, Waffle House and car dealerships all have locations in New Orleans East - those are low risk locations for those businesses, based on scale alone.
But to a local outfit that may only have 3 or 4 locations, with almost all of their investment prone to flood threat in one way or another, that represents a killing risk. That location represents a huge percentage of their business that cannot be lost. Their small size means insurance companies are more likely to stall payments, and they likely don't have enough other locations to offset the loss. Especially local units in the New Orleans area, where - if New Orleans East floods - likely represents a major situation to all area units. Simply put, the amount of money (reward) they could make by catering to the significant NO East population does not offset the substantial risk they take by opening up a location there.
Next up, businesses have to factor in clientle demographics, and I'm not even talking about skin color. This is all about green. NO East is a drive-first, in-boundary suburb of New Orleans. The majority money-earners are expected to drive into New Orleans for work, while there will be a high number of contractors doing repair work in the area during the day. No tourist or entertainment options exist in the East, so - as with most suburban communities - people are predicted to stay home or to drive somewhere else.
Now, the entertainment/tourist option is a Catch-22 for the East while the same is a multiplier for the rest of the parish and region. Attractions like Magazine Street, Frenchman, the French Quarter, and Lakeview Mall all bleed commerce from the East, while giving little back in the way of return visitors. Also, the sheer number of out-of-town visitors bolster many of these locales while ignoring the East. Of course, this commerce ignores the East because there is not current commerce in the East. There's really very little the East can do to combat that economic reality.
The fact that it is a drive-first option also puts economic constraints on the area. Drive-first commerce begets strips and malls, snarling traffic and constantly changing. Usually, the appeal to put a business in a strip or a mall is the low cost/overhead for doing so, and the high traffic the area is expected to experience. That's why suburban economic development is in constant motion - there aren't a lot of long-term investments in a constantly changing economic structure. Drive-first also requires more monied developers to build the infrastructure with guarantees of government subsidization. This situation also works against the East right now, because what infrastructure improvement projects the city is working on are all going at once, and it is no secret (no matter what politics say) that there are higher priorities than New Orleans East.
When your area's development is effectively at the mercy of developers, city and state governments, and your area is neither a political nor economic prioritiy for the developers or the government, you're going to be waiting on them. Major developers are going to wait until the government subsidizes their major developments, and since they own the title - no one else can develop the areas zoned for major developments. Since the government refuses to declare the property "blight" or assess property values with a penalty for the plot not being in-commerce, the owners can sit and wait on their derelict land until the government money starts to flow into their pockets. Need proof? Look at the negotiation over the hospital - the other major NO East development - how has that been working out for the city and the population?
Add to that the fact that the government's main hospital priority is in Lower Mid-City, coupled with a budget crisis, and you have yourselves a problem. Really, you have yourself a literal raft of problems, all holding back your local economic development.
And this raft of problems rolls in long before the criminal, educational, racial or conspiratorial reasons for lack of economic development - though all of those play a major role in keeping things the way they are, as they keep perceptions and realities that need to change from changing.
* - Earlier, I wrote that NO East didn't have any grocery stores, but Alli says there is one, so I'll trust her on that. That's still ONE grocery store for 71,000 people. The place where I grew up had no less than three grocery stores, for only 12,000 people.