The hard-working Mississippi riverfront has historically been a source of economic vigor for New Orleans and jobs for its residents.

Now, work is underway on the transformation of some long-idled symbols of the riverfront’s past into new tools to help create jobs and economic opportunity for the community today.

The local branch of the national nonprofit Volunteers of America recently unveiled plans to redevelop a pair of vacant industrial buildings along Tchoupitoulas Street near the Lower Garden District into rental apartments and a commercial kitchen where military veterans and others can be trained for culinary jobs while producing healthier food for local schoolchildren.

“We’re really optimistic about that neighborhood and how our project fits with the transition going on there now,” says Victor Smeltz, executive director of Renaissance Neighborhood Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Volunteers of America that is managing the project.

The properties now under renovation include the one-time office building for the Lykes shipping company and a 19th-century cotton press, where cotton bales were shrunk down for easier transport. The cotton press is among the last remaining examples of some two-dozen similar structures that once lined the riverfront there.

The plan calls for the former office building to become 52 apartments, which will rent below market rates in order to offer more affordable housing. Meanwhile, the adjacent cotton press will become the commercial kitchen, which will employ more than 125 culinary trainees, including formerly homeless veterans served through Volunteers of America housing programs. The group plans to use this facility to offer a healthier in-school meal service option for New Orleans-area schools. The project should be operational by March, Smeltz says, and the plan is to have school meal contracts in place for the fall 2013 semester.

“Our goal is to be a social enterprise, a business that has a social benefit and hopefully turns a profit,” says Smeltz. “That means as budgets and government support for programs like ours are cut, we can generate some of our own revenue for them.”

The group is using “crowd-sourcing” through social media to name the project and also to solicit ideas for about 4,000 square feet of space at the site for further development.