That Sinking Feeling: Once-thriving businesses near Avondale Shipyard are now struggling to survive

This article was published in The Times-Picayune on July 24, 2011. 

Darcy Adams can’t believe she used to make enough in tips to go shoe-shopping. She misses those days now.


With more bills and past-due notices arriving every day, Adams, 49, looks stressed as she lights another cigarette and surveys the bar. It’s happy hour, but with just four men in the place, two poking at billiard balls in the corner and two nursing beers at the bar, the dozens of empty barstools underscore just how dead it really is.

“I can’t sleep at night. I can’t pay my bills. I’m stressing so bad,” said Adams, of Waggaman. “This place used to be packed. Now, I’m lucky if I get 10 customers.”

As the bartender at O’Reilly’s in Bridge City for the past 10 years, Adams is among the hundreds of people in the Avondale Shipyard area who have seen their business plummet in the past year. Since Northrop Grumman announced last July it would close the shipyard by 2013, the yard’s 5,000 workers have been laid off or left to await their fate. The fallout, for the local businesses that rely on their patronage, has been devastating.

“Come 2013, I’ll be 55, unemployed, and unemployable,” said Rob Laborde, 53, who has worked at the shipyard for the past 22 years. “You gotta keep all your money now. You gotta count every dime you got.”

The layoffs have come in waves, with anywhere from 40 to 200 workers being handed pink slips every month or so. With that kind of uncertainty, the shipyard workers have been saving their paychecks.

“They used to buy rounds and rounds of drinks in here. Now they grab one or two beers, always the cheapest ones,” said Adams, adding that the Budweiser and Miller beer truck drivers have commented on the community’s dwindling beer orders during the past few months.

Thursdays — paydays at the shipyard — meant Adams would leave with more than $100 in tips. But in the past few months, her tips have taken a hit. Last Thursday she left with $14.

That kind of drastic drop in sales already has led some once-prosperous businesses to close.

Rusty Costanza, The Times-Picayune

Ray Barrios first opened his restaurant, B&R Restaurant, across the road from the shipyard in 1968. As the only business around at the time, he was very successful. Over the years, he lost some of his income to new businesses that moved in down the street. But it’s the past year’s layoffs that really crushed his restaurant. In December, he had to close.

Now Barrios spends his days in his pickup truck outside the shuttered building, selling parking spaces to the shipyard workers.

“Another 41 were laid off today,” Barrios said a little more than a week ago, while counting money in his truck. “It affects everybody, no doubt about it. What’s gonna happen? Northrup Gumman’s not saying nothing to nobody. Everybody’s wondering, nobody knows.”

At one time Barrios could say he was the first of many businesses to open near the shipyard. Now, he can include that his business was also the first of many to close.

“Pretty soon, all that’s going to be gone,” he said, gesturing toward a few convenience stores, bars and restaurants down the road.

Since he closed, Barrios has been having trouble selling his property, and he’s not alone. With homes being seized by lenders almost every week and the shipyard’s looming demise, property values have plummeted, according to local real estate brokers. One homeowner had to lower his home’s price from $80,000 to $60,000 in the past two years.

“My business won’t die because of Avondale closing because I’ll just move around,” said Shelly Vallee, a broker who works in the area for All Around Realty LLC. “But the Avondale area, it’s not gonna be pretty. The only people buying right now are investors. It’s gonna be a total rental town.”

O’Reilly’s Pub in Bridge City watches its business slip away as Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Avondale nears closing.Watch video

Abdel Fattah Abdel, owner of Comeaux Grocery Store, said that the shipyard workers don’t buy as many groceries now and practically nobody cashes checks, dealing a harsh blow to his income.

But, he said, with his store located right before the Huey P. Long Bridge, the passing traffic still brings in substantial business as people driving by tend to stop in for a cold drink.

Some of the workers contend, however, that those days are numbered too.

After all, almost all of the traffic is from the shipyard.

“When the shipyard’s done, they’re not gonna need that bridge, much less those traffic lights,” said Bobby Livaudais, a shipyard worker for the past 19 years. “There ain’t gonna be no traffic here. This place’ll be a ghost town.”

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