‘Gentilly is open for business’

Published July 18, 2011 in The Times-Picayune.

Gentilly’s 19 neighborhood associations have been waiting for this kind of attention for a long time.

After years of relatively stagnant recovery since Hurricane Katrina in both repopulation and commercial activity, Gentilly is about to become the focus of several groups hoping to jumpstart the economy in the neighborhood.

Capital One and the Urban League of New Orleans have created the “Grow Gentilly” small business plan competition, in which two companies already in business in Gentilly will win cash prizes, along with technical and professional assistance.

The winning business will receive $10,000 with the runner-up to get $5,000, money that Capital One officials describe as “strategic investments,” Gentilly also has the eye of the NOLA Business Alliance, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new public-private partnership tasked with economic development. The group has identified Gentilly as a high priority area and is developing a strategy to attract large retail centers there.

“We’ve been asking for people out there to invest in Gentilly,” said David Welch, of the Gentilly Community Improvement Association, the umbrella organization over Gentilly’s 19 neighborhood associations. “We’re trying to get the message out that Gentilly is open for business.”

Many businesses never re-opened following the storm, and only slightly more than half the population has returned, according to estimates by the Gentilly Community Improvement Association. Currently, about 13 percent of the city’s population resides in Gentilly, according to 2010 Census data.

Developers see potential in Gentilly because of its vast residential landscape, engaged community leaders, and the presence of four universities. Also, while house prices in neighboring areas such as New Orleans East have been declining between two and four percent for the past year, Gentilly’s house prices have remained relatively stable, making the area more desirable for homeowners.

The “Grow Gentilly” competition will judge contestants on their business plan’s creativity, innovation, and potential to grow and create jobs in the Gentilly community. Capital One and the Urban League of New Orleans will select the six finalists who will then present their business plans to a judging panel of community and business leaders. The panel will choose the winners.

The deadline for the “Grow Gentilly” small business plan competition is August 1. For more information, or to apply, see the website: http://www.cybergrants.com/capitalone/growgentilly.

“The goal is really to create jobs and give a leg-up to help small businesses grow,” said Mark Boucree, Capital One’s vice president of community development banking. “To help a neighborhood pull up its boostraps and help itself is appealing to us.”

While Capital One is not targeting any specific industries in its competition, Welch said Gentilly is especially in need of businesses that would entice families and college students, such as coffee shops, sit-down restaurants, entertainment venues, and stores.

“Our development district so far has been a disappointment,” said Welch. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg type thing, which is why we need investment.”

That investment will also come in the form of extensive research and marketing. The NOLA Business Alliance is conducting extensive research and marketing statistics to present to several large-scale retailers.

Many retailers do not understand the current picture in New Orleans, nearly six years after Katrina. Providing accurate demographic information, as well as financial incentives, will help attract businesses, said Rod Miller, CEO of the NOLA Business Alliance.

“The NOLA Business Alliance is very excited to help author the success story of Gentilly, and we look forward to working with Gentilly’s already very civically engaged residents to come up with retail solutions that work for everyone,” Miller said in a statement.

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