New Orleans has been a magnet for volunteers and grant funding from sources around the nation as the monumental task of rebuilding from the federal levee failures grinds on. Recently however, one prominent national organization enabled the infusion of a vital recovery asset of a different sort: full-time urban redevelopment professionals.

The New York-based Rockefeller Foundation started its Redevelopment Fellowship program this fall as a way to help key redevelopment organizations and city agencies hire more professionals and add some momentum to both large-scale and neighborhood-based projects. The group has provided $2.2 million to fund the program, including a portion of salaries for the 24 fellows through March 2009. Fellows were selected through a competitive process and placed in positions mostly focused on restoring affordable housing, which continues to be a major problem in a city where most of the housing stock was damaged.

“Community development is very labor intensive work. It takes people working within the community to move these deals along. That’s why we have them here,” says Rockefeller Foundation associate director Carey Shea, who moved to New Orleans herself to work hands-on with local officials on the city’s recovery plan.The fellows work four days a week and attend ongoing professional courses at the University of New Orleans two days a week and will also attend national site visits to see best practice in action. “They’re learning everything from hardcore real estate finance to the subtle side of community development and bringing in partners,” Shea says. 

For instance, one fellow is working on the new outdoor market launched on Freret Street to help revitalize an historic but faded Uptown commercial corridor. Another is working on the redevelopment on the C.J. Peete public housing project as part of a massive, federally-funded initiative to replace some of the city’s old apartment complexes for low-income residents with mixed-income communities.

Some of the fellows are local people while others have ties to the area. Many, however, simply wanted to participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans and were willing to leave jobs across the country to join the program. Shea is hopeful some will decide to remain and continue working in New Orleans long after the end of the program as projects move forward and new plans surface.

“New Orleans is one of the most interesting places, if not the most interesting place, in the entire U.S. for development work,” Shea says. “When these folks come out on the other end they’ll have some impressive experience.”

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