Tuesday, August 21, 2012

New Orleans is no longer the most blighted city in America, report finds

New Orleans is no longer the most blighted city in America, report finds

Published: Monday, August 20, 2012, 9:45 PM Updated: Monday, August 20, 2012, 9:46 PM
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has consistently held the unwanted crown of most blighted city in America. That's no longer true, said Allison Plyer, chief demographer for the Greater New Orleans Data Center. A report released by the nonprofit agency on Monday shows that Detroit and Flint, Mich., had a greater percentage of dilapidated housing stock than the Crescent City, a first since the levees failed and drowned the city in 2005.
blighted-house-lasalle-street.jpgThe new report by the Greater New Orleans Data Center estimated that 8,000 properties in New Orleans were repaired or rebuilt between September 2010 and March 2011, leaving around 21 percent of all properties blighted, compared with 27 percent in Flint and 24 percent in Detroit.
The new report estimated that 8,000 properties in New Orleans were repaired or rebuilt between September 2010 and March 2011, leaving around 21 percent of all properties blighted, compared with 27 percent in Flint and 24 percent in Detroit.
Youngstown, Ohio, a poster child of Rust Belt decline that has been further hammered by the recent recession, tied with New Orleans in the survey, followed by Cleveland at 19 percent and Baltimore at 14 percent. The study does not track blight in every city in America, but the researchers have monitored six of the U.S. cities most synonymous with urban decline.
In comparing New Orleans with other places, the report estimates there are roughly 43,680 blighted or vacant units here. But of those, about 8,000 are likely habitable, the report says, meaning the number of truly blighted lots and units is more like 35,700.
Plyer is quick to add that that number is a best estimate, and could be off by as much as 3,500 homes because there is no clear-cut, agreed-upon method to track blight in New Orleans.
blight-flint.jpgTrash surrounds a vacant house on Baltimore Boulevard in Flint, Mich., on Monday. The city of Flint has suspended its blight elimination program this year after funding for the office ran out, officials said.
To compile the report, the center analyzed counts of working and non-working addresses reported by the U.S. Postal Service. A delay in releasing mail service data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development led to the report's August release, Plyer said.
The report calls for a comprehensive blight tracking system for the city. "Only a massive operation that goes door-to-door to inspect every parcel in the city can provide an accurate count of the number of blighted properties in New Orleans," it stated.
The drop in blight is due in part to Mayor Mitch Landrieu's push to remove 10,000 blighted properties from the rolls by 2014, the report said. But blighted properties have been decreasing since March 2008, when 34 percent of the city's housing stock was uninhabitable, the report said.
Code enforcement conducted 23,000 inspections in 2011, bringing at least 800 properties into compliance through administrative hearings and likely many more through the threat of legal action, the report said.
blilght-detroit.jpgA section of stores stand vacant in Detroit on July 27, 2011. Detroit's mayor unveiled a plan that could determine what the city looks like as it fights for vitality, announcing that neighborhoods will receive different kinds of services depending on the condition of homes, how many people live there and the level of blight.
Population growth, which naturally leads to the rehabilitation and sale of homes, is the main way blight is reduced, Plyer said. And the city been continuing to get bigger, thanks to its reasonable cost of living and a local job market that is steadier than the national one -- as well as the slow trickle of people returning after the Katrina diaspora.
"We're doing better than the rest of the nation, but it's not like we're in this booming economy," Plyer said.
The report warned that if population growth slows, so could blight reduction. Through surveys in recent months, Plyer said the data center found residents who have fixed up their homes are becoming less tolerant of homeowners who have let their storm-damaged properties fester. "People were saying, 'O.K., this is blight," she said.
chart-blight-082112.jpgView full size

But while some neighborhoods, such as Pontchartrain Park and parts of Gentilly, have seen a reduction in blight, others haven't changed much. Central City, for instance, has shown little improvement since 2010, according to the data center.
Charmaine Baker-Fox of the Central City Partnership agrees with that finding, saying she's seen little if any progress in her neighborhood. She said lower-income residents simply don't have the means to repair their family homes, making blight nearly intractable.
"I would love to see someone, the city, anyone, come in and rehab our houses, to make them the way they used to be," she said. "Now don't get me wrong. I don't want them to give us something. We want to be a part of what's happening in the city."
Richard Rainey can be reached at rrainey@timespicayune.com or 504.883.7052.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mid-City Magic: New Orleans neighborhood has magnetic appeal for buyers

Mid-City Magic: New Orleans neighborhood has magnetic appeal for buyers

Published: Sunday, July 01, 2012, 10:22 AM Updated: Monday, July 02, 2012, 10:33 AM
Anyone who has any affinity whatsoever for Carnival knows someone that lives in Mid-City.

Don’t try to deny it.

With one of the biggest parades in the world kicking off on the streets of this New Orleans neighborhood, Mid-City is the place to be on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, thanks to Endymion. And knowing someone who lives in Mid-City makes it easy to have a parade place.

Even Uptowners will have a friend of friend’s cousin twice removed on their mother’s side who lives on one of the picturesque streets near the parade route.

But during the other 364 days of the year, this delightful neighborhood nestled in the heart of the Crescent City is a vibrant ville where family roots run deep, commerce is pleasantly exploding and real estate professionals point out that demand for homes is high and getting higher all the time.

With a flurry of activity in the area bringing jobs and attention on a local, state and national level, Mid-City is a popular place to pick.

Roughly delineated, Mid-City fills the central space of the city between downtown and Lakeview, from the Pontchartrain Expressway on the west to Esplanade Avenue on the east, from City Park Avenue on the north to Claiborne Avenue on the south. And like any neighborhood in the city, the lines are relatively fluid (depending on one’s perspective, history and point of view).

Mid-City enjoys a brilliantly diverse collection of architectural types, from plantation-style homes that look out over Bayou St. John to Creole cottages, Arts and Crafts doubles, Mediterranean manses and contemporary creations — with every imaginable style in between.

That style has arisen from decades of homesteads that grew as the city grew and is growing in popularity as the city continues to shine.

That popularity as a place to live is strong.

“The people that live there absolutely love it,” said JoAnn Centanni of COLDWELL BANKER, TEC Realtors. “It’s a fabulous part of the city,” whose husband’s family has deep roots in the area.

That love for the area is drawing buyers, creating new generations of Mid-City dwellers.

“There’s been a tremendous resurgence of property values in Mid-City,” said Terry Roff of GARDNER, Realtors. “Multi-families are in such short supply.”

Always a popular style of dwelling in New Orleans, multi-family houses (doubles, triples and more) have been a mainstay in the Mid-City area. Many buyers have purchased these many-familied units with an eye to converting the structure to a single-family unit or to maximize one side and leave a smaller one-bedroom or efficiency apartment that will generate income to offset home mortgage payments.

But with the popularity of the area and the prospect of having some help in paying off the house note, buyers have taken advantage of the multi-family structures.

And investors have kept a close eye on the area, renovating many homes in the past few years, creating an enticing array of buildings that celebrate the rich history of New Orleans architecture but with modern and contemporary style. These changes appeal to buyers looking for such things as up-to-the-minute kitchens and baths, with open-living floor plans for today’s families.

“Housing stock is becoming more and more renovated — back to the glory days of Mid-City properties,” notes Roff.

‘ON FIRE’All of these positive attributes are causing movement in the market of Mid-City houses.
“Mid-City is starting to become a real contender as a first-choice neighborhood,” said JoAnn Fitzpatrick Broussard of LATTER & BLUM, Inc./Realtors.

Reinforcing that concept, Broussard noted that in year-to-date figures, 76 percent of the homes on the market had sold within 90 days or less, a sign that properties are not languishing. And 54 percent of homes on the market had gone under contract in 30 days or less.

Interest in the area spans from first-time home buyers to investors, and trickles into the rental units as well.

“Our rental market is on fire,” said Broussard. “It’s very competitive.”

The commercial aspects of the area are a major part of the attraction equation.

Mid-City is reaching critical mass when it comes to restaurant offerings. Throughout the area, diners of every stripe can find a plethora of culinary creations that span the globe and please the palate.

Retailers have responded to the demands of the area with major installations for everything from fashion, hardware, home improvement, business-to-business services, groceries and more.

New Orleans’ bountiful legal community makes its presence known in the area, as well, with many former dwellings converted into law offices within proximity of the courthouse at Tulane and Broad.

And the expanding biomedical corridor will attract thousands of jobs to the area, making Mid-City the nearby neighborhood, within an easy walk, bicycle ride or streetcar trip.

But Mid-City also offers so much more than just a place to live and work. With vast green spaces, historic attractions, Bayou St. John, access to City Park and its bevy of offerings and educational options, this New Orleans neighborhood has an understated yet palpable sense of excitement about it.

More is on the way.

Now seems like a perfect time to get right in the middle of things — right in Mid-City.

By Victor M. AndrewsSpecial Sections staff writer
Victor Andrews can be reached at vandrews@timespicayune.com

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why New Orleans Is the Coolest Start-up City in America

Idea Village, a New Orleans-based not-for-profit that helps support local entrepreneurs, is helping rebuild its city's economic devastation by organizing a series of workshops and competitions involving MBA students from the nation's top business schools.

Everyone in New Orleans has a Katrina story, and those tales are typically tinged with loss, frustration, and grief. Five years after the storm, you still hear them, of course, and you still see evidence of the devastation that killed over 1,800 people and left more than one million homeless. But Katrina gave New Orleans another story to tell, and it's one that just may have a happy ending for the city's entrepreneurs. Each year from 2007 to 2009, 450 out of every 100,000 adults started up businesses in the New Orleans metro area, well above the national average of 320, and more than double the number six year ago.

"Katrina did two things," says Tim Williamson, the CEO of Idea Village, which recently sponsored New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week (NOEW). "Everyone became an entrepreneur because everyone was starting over in some way—we became a start-up city." Second, he says, "our networks scaled globally." Williamson and four fellow entrepreneurs founded Idea Village, a not-for-profit organization, in 2000 in order to identify and support local entrepreneurs. But it wasn't until after Katrina—when the city's plight triggered a huge influx of people who wanted to help rebuild—that the organization gained real traction. Among those who showed up were MBA students from top business schools who opted to spend spring break rolling up their sleeves to help New Orleans entrepreneurs rather than hitting the beaches. One of those MBAs was Daryn Dodson from Stanford; the following year, he returned with 25 fellow Stanford MBAs, who were supported by alum Jim Coulter, co-founder of Silicon Valley private equity giant, TPG. "Stanford would not have come here if it weren't for Katrina," says Williamson. He and his partners saw that the time was right for New Orleans to attract world-class resources in order to nurture its homegrown entrepreneurial talent.

That was three years ago and since then, Idea Village's efforts have grown from matching a few MBAs with local entrepreneurs to a full-blown week of events where over $1 million in cash and services are pumped into the local economy. Workshops, taught by local business leaders as well as by executives from Google, Salesforce.com, and Cisco, are offered to hundreds of New Orleans small business owners. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office is now on board, as is Tulane University, Goldman Sachs, and a few local economic development groups. Even James Carville and Mary Matalin got in on the action; they hosted a reception for NOEW attendees at their posh Uptown antebellum mansion. To make things more financially interesting, the Greater New Orleans Foundation financed NOEW's $50,000 "Water Challenge," a competition for entrepreneurs with innovative water management solutions. The winner: NanoFex, which developed technology to use Louisiana sugar cane and crawfish shells to purify contaminated groundwater. And TPG's Coulter now sponsors the week's culminating event, IDEAPitch, an American Idol-like competition (moderated this year by yours truly) where five entrepreneurs pitch the audience and investors from TPG, Bain Venture Capital, Redpoint, Prism, IBM Ventures, and American Funds. The winner is flown out to San Francisco to meet with potential investors.

Last year's IDEAPitch winner, Big Easy Blends, makes frozen cocktails ("Mar-GO-Rita") packaged in Capri Sun-like pouches. Co-founder Craig Cordes says that while his San Francisco trip didn't result in a big investment, he did "get a ton of press and we increased revenue 350 percent and increased distribution from five states to 12." By the end of this month, the company, which just landed $350,000 in local angel investment, will have distribution in 30 states. We're betting that this year's winner, NOvate Medical Technologies, will attract significant investment dollars when its co-founder, 24-year old William Kethman, makes his pitch to investors in San Francisco next month. The bow tie wearing Tulane med student wowed the audience and judges with a medical device called Safe Snip, a disposable, plastic clamp that cuts, seals, and disinfects an umbilical cord. Kethman designed it for use in developing countries, where string and razor blades are widely used for severing umbilical cords, causing a host of potential health problems. "The strong impact of the product and the simplicity bodes well for the potential of the product," says Coulter.

For me, though, the highlight of NOEW was the MBA pitch competition. The whole week is strategically scheduled in March to coincide with spring break so that teams of MBAs can be paired with local companies for a week of brainstorming, planning, and reinvention. This year's teams came from Berkeley, University of Chicago Booth, Cornell, Northwestern Kellogg, Loyola, Tulane, and Stanford. And if you're thinking these kids put in eight-hour days, then headed to Bourbon Street, think again. "We didn't get a lot of sleep," one number-crunching Kellogg student told me. He was hoping to get a taste of French Quarter night life once the competition ended, after the teams presented plans for their respective companies to a judging panel, which included executives from TPG Capital, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Tulane University, and Whitney Bank.

The judges had their work cut out for them. The team from Loyola came up with a plan for NOLA Brewery to address bottlenecks in production and to increase distributor incentives; Tulane worked with Bideo, an online auction house for pictures and video, to develop a marketing campaign targeted to college campuses; and the Cornell students found manufacturing space and a potential distributor for Spa Workshop, a maker of computerized, multi-header showers. But the big prize (which included a trophy, a chauffeured limo ride to Carville/Matalin reception, and a crawfish boil delivered to their campus) went to the Northwestern team for their work with Rare Cuts, which sells very high quality meat to consumers from a single store in Uptown New Orleans.

Rare Cuts owner Henry Albert says sales last year, his first year in business, were "right at about $580,000. And if I can orchestrate what the Kellogg guys came up with, it'll be $1.2 million this year. I was taking a buckshot approach to marketing, thinking everyone is a potential customer because I sell food. They helped me identify my core customer: The foodie cook." He plans to revamp his website and begin selling his meat nationwide via e-commerce. He'll also ramp up his social media presence and rebrand his store. "I was going to raise capital for a second store," he says. "But now I'm going to hold off and see how the web goes. The Northwestern guys laid out a framework for the site architecture and I thought it was spectacular." Albert notes that "the company that won the MBA Challenge last year [Naked Pizza] has exploded," so he's hoping that Rare Cuts will experience the same success. He's currently negotiating with one of the Kellogg MBA's to come to New Orleans for an internship this summer to help him execute his new plan.

"This whole thing has been very grass roots," says Williamson. "We had MBAs from Stanford, and then those kids went to work for Salesforce.com and Google and now their companies are involved." One of the IDEAPitch finalists this year, Rebirth Financial, a peer-to-business lending platform, was founded by Xavier Cabo and Chonchol Gupta, Tulane MBA grads who won the competition last year for their work with Jack and Jakes, a local organic market. This year, their own business got some significant help from the Chicago Booth MBA team. "They helped us go from having $26,000 in loans on our platform to over a $1 million," says Gupta. "And they gave us a marketing strategy for the next nine months," adds Cabo. "That's beautiful." That kind of mentoring—peer-to-peer and intergenerational—is what helps create and sustain an entrepreneurial ecosystem that not only draws upon local talent, but is vibrant enough to attract global resources. "New Orleans along with San Francisco is constantly creating vibrant ideas and products to the landscape in music, food, architecture, and entrepreneurs" says Coulter. New Orleans isn't Silicon Valley yet, but give it some time. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu likes to say, the place "gets all up in ya." True dat.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Big Easy's Business Leap Forward New Orleans has been reborn as a tech town. Really.

It's been 10 years, but Tim Williamson's face still registers incredulity as he recalls the conversation.
He and several other young New Orleans businessmen had dreamed up something called the Idea Village, which would be an innovative center for start-up businesses. They had already sponsored successful events to help bolster local entrepreneurship, and now they were seeking support from the local Chamber of Commerce, which they expected would be enthusiastic. They were mistaken. "What if it fails?" the Chamber man asked.
"I'm thinking, 'What if it fails? Hey, what if it works!'" laughed Mr. Williamson in his office recently. "We had found the root of the problem." It's a problem that New Orleans seems to have overcome in the years since Hurricane Katrina—so much so that Mr. Williamson can now afford a little levity.
From its modest origins a decade ago, the nonprofit Idea Village has grown into an engine for the New Orleans economy. To date it's helped raise about $2.7 million in seed capital for more than 1,100 local entrepreneurs, creating more than 1,000 jobs and $83 million in annual revenue—and these days helping the city's unemployment rate stay about a point to a point-and-a-half below the national average.
On Friday the group concluded its fourth annual Entrepreneur Week, which featured 525 start-up companies competing for more than $1 million in capital and consulting services. Ten years ago, holding a weeklong festival for start-ups in New Orleans would have been akin to staging Mardi Gras in Palo Alto.
Idea Village
The Speed to Seed Pitch at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week last year.
But the event has grown every year and now attracts sponsors such as Google and Goldman Sachs. This year's itinerary concluded with "The Big Idea," a kind of $100,000 "pitch off" in which 19 start-ups made their cases to a crowd of festival-goers, each of whom was given a $50 chip to award to a company.
Trusting such crazy ideas is a central principle of the Idea Village and is part of the vibe that has infected post-Katrina New Orleans. "Every hurricane has a silver lining," said author and New Orleans native Walter Isaacson in his keynote address to the entrepreneurs.
Katrina certainly gave New Orleans the opening to remake its failed institutions. Today about 80% of the city's public schools, formerly among the nation's worst, are charter schools competing on performance to attract students. The city's antiquated Charity Hospital will soon be replaced by a state-of-the-art medical center, part of a larger, 2.4-square-mile medical corridor anchored by a new cancer research facility and BioInnovation Center.
Thanks to aggressive tax incentives, this year New Orleans is on pace to supplant New York as the biggest feature-filmmaking center outside of Los Angeles, a successful model the city is seeking to replicate in both music and software design.
These and other initiatives are changing the city's commercial culture. Once viewed almost exclusively as a booze-soaked destination for debauchery, New Orleans was tabbed last year by Forbes as the No. 1 brain magnet in the country for college graduates, and Inc. magazine dubbed it the "coolest start-up city in America." Last month the city beat out a dozen rivals for a new GE Capital technology center that will bring about 300 high-end tech jobs.
Perhaps the most telling change is the business community's belated appreciation for the city's unique character. For years business leaders bemoaned New Orleans' inability to emulate its more prosperous neighbors in the New South. Today, that script has flipped.
"We are not going to be like Atlanta or Houston," says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., a business development group. "But in the long run that's a competitive advantage." In its focus on building a creative economy, New Orleans sees its competition not in buttoned-down regional rivals but in San Francisco, Austin and Boston—other offbeat cities focusing more on homegrown job creation than on Fortune 500 benefactors.
The city is also seeking entrepreneurial solutions to its social and environmental problems. Many start-ups that have worked with Idea Village—such as Kickboard, an educational software company—have arisen from the public-school reclamation effort led by groups like Teach For America and KIPP. Another start-up, Tierra Resources, won $50,000 in seed money for its innovative plan for marketing carbon-pollution credits to rebuild Louisiana's wetlands and similar ecosystems around the world.
Tierra won its grant by beating two other finalists in the "Water Challenge," a daylong seminar co-sponsored by Idea Village and the Greater New Orleans Foundation on the threat from coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Since Katrina, New Orleans has understandably developed a keen interest in water-control systems, with particular admiration for low-lying Dutch cities like Rotterdam that have successfully managed coastal flooding.
Tierra's charismatic, tattooed president and founder, Sarah Mack, is a prime example of the Idea Village model. Ms. Mack admits that when she conceived of Tierra she had little clue how to construct a revenue model. For months she met with advisers supplied by Idea Village, including "entrepreneurs in residence" Kevin Wilkins and Doug Walner, former senior executives in the financial and tech sectors, respectively. "I'd call them at all hours," she says.
Idea Village also assigned a team of six Harvard MBA candidates to work with Ms. Mack, one of several MBA teams from the likes of Dartmouth, Duke and Columbia that have chipped in during Entrepreneur Week. Ms. Mack formed an easy bond with her Harvard team, ferrying them around New Orleans in her battered pickup truck. "They'd fight to see who gets to ride in the back," she says.
One of the MBA candidates, Harry Cominos, a management consultant from Australia, says he appreciated working on a start-up like Ms. Mack's. "In so many places it's all tech," he notes. "In New Orleans, it's lots of different industries." His teammate Angela Wise, who had worked for Microsoft, made another surprising observation about the city: "So many places are averse to change, but New Orleans really isn't—one of the few places that isn't."
That may be the biggest change of all in the Big Easy. Just ask Tim Williamson.
Mr. McCollam is a writer living in New Orleans.
A version of this article appeared Mar. 17, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Big Easy's Business Leap Forward.