Against the odds

New Orleans continues to snag jobs.

It didn’t take long after the challenge of the century arose in New Orleans before people began to suggest that disaster might present opportunity. In the mayoral election of 2006, a common economic development plank in the campaign platforms was the premise that new business could grow around the needs and demands presented by Hurricane Katrina. Almost five years later, it appears the idea was solid.

Since 2005, New Orleans has seen growth in several  business sectors related to repairing, renovating and rebuilding. There has been a surge, for instance, in businesses that sell and install “green” construction products, in line with the post-Katrina emphasis on sustainable building. Companies offering innovative steel and concrete construction techniques have popped up around the city, while local engineering and architecture firms have seen explosive growth.

Recent business announcements suggest that the trend is continuing. In March, Ballista Storm Systems LLC opened its doors in New Orleans to sell innovative hurricane protection systems. The firm’s proprietary systems are specifically designed to shield both high-rise buildings and ground-level structures from severe hurricanes while maintaining aesthetically pleasing exteriors.

Company president Charles Zimmer says Ballista has begun engaging consulting services of area firms in engineering, manufacturing, marketing and distributing Ballista’s new StormShear product. “We plan to provide commercial designers and owners the ability to maintain local design character, along with storm protection,” he says. Ballista will offer its products across the Gulf Coast region from its local headquarters.

Another construction-related business also recently announced it will set up shop within the Port of New Orleans.

Atlantic Metrocast Inc., a subsidiary of Atlantic Wood Industries of Savannah, Ga., leased several acres of port property along France Road and is investing about $5 million to build a pre-stressed concrete production facility.

Company President William Crossman says the plant will be the first of its kind in the region and will turn out pre-cast concrete pilings, slabs and beams.

The new venture marks a return home for the company, which was originally founded in New Orleans in 1901. “Our hope is to be in New Orleans for the long term,” says Crossman, who predicts the business will employ up to 100 workers.

New investment by companies such as these have helped to buoy the local economy during years that have been rocky in much of the rest of the country. Data compiled by the University of New Orleans show that total employment in the greater New Orleans area, while still below pre-Katrina levels, has been on a gradual but fairly steady climb for several years. Recently, the city’s unemployment rate – at 6 percent – was the lowest among the nation’s largest metropolitan statistical areas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

UNO Economic Research Director Janet Speyrer says that per capita personal income in New Orleans, though it has taken a few bounces, has gradually climbed and currently hovers above $40,000, slightly lagging the U.S. average. Speyrer reports that in terms of such “negative” indicators as rates of personal bankruptcy and home foreclosures, New Orleans has maintained significantly lower ratios than the nation at large throughout the recession.

Based on such strengths, Southern Business and Development magazine named New Orleans the “major market of the year” in 2009.
Along with startups and the influx of new companies into the area, an important factor contributing to local economic strength has been existing businesses that have made new commitments to the city. Folgers Coffee Co., long an anchor of New Orleans’ important coffee business, recently announced it will expand two local production facilities along with a distribution center. Folgers will expand its manufacturing facilities on Old Gentilly Road and Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans as well as its distribution center in Lacombe.

The company will invest almost $70 million in the projects, adding 120 jobs to the 450 it already provides. The Louisiana Economic Development Department estimates that some 380 additional jobs will result from spinoff activity related to increased coffee bean importing, roasting and distribution during the next few years.

The Economic Development Department, which helped Folgers take advantage of state incentives related to employment growth, estimates that the projects will generate $17.2 million in new state tax revenue and $4.9 million in new local tax revenue over the next 10 years, excluding corporate income taxes and local property taxes.

Meanwhile, another well-known local business that will continue providing jobs is New Orleans Cold Storage Co. After lengthy negotiations over a new location for the frozen poultry distributor, the company came to terms with the Port of New Orleans as a site for its plant. With the help of a $24 million grant from the state, the company will build a 147,000-square-foot refrigerated terminal at a riverfront cargo wharf. As a result of the arrangement, both the company and its 380 jobs will remain in New Orleans.

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