New Orleans asks: 'What recession?'
After Katrina, the Big Easy is slowly attracting newcomers and rebuilding its economy.
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"Among the places in the US that you can go, [New Orleans] is going to be one where there may be greater opportunities for employment," says Baton Rouge economist Loren Scott, a veteran tracker of the New Orleans economy.Skip to next paragraph
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But entrepreneurs in New Orleans say the real reason the city has outperformed expectations is the human capital that has flowed into the city: a great migration similar to ones that cities like Portland, Ore., saw in the first half of this decade – young, highly educated, and socially conscious risk-takers looking for a "livable city" to make their marks on the world.
Some signs: Tulane and Loyola universities, despite recent hurricane shutdowns, are seeing record enrollments, and the anecdotal evidence is that many graduates, instead of leaving as they often did in the past, are sinking roots.
Two years ago, Fast Company magazine ranked New Orleans as one of the five slowest cities in the world, alongside Budapest. This year, the city had catapulted to become one of the world's five fastest cities, according to the magazine's editors.
Despite risks of the recession overcoming the state's gains (in March the metro area lost jobs – 1,100 – for the first time since Katrina), some economists expect Louisiana to have a net gain of 1,300 jobs by the end of the year, at a time when employment has been skidding in cities such as New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco.
In late April, two major rating agencies upgraded New Orleans's municipal bonds to investment grade for the first time since hurricane Katrina hit, citing "the city's generally improving financial profile."
Tourism and convention business has shown continued growth, partly based on what locals call the "AIG effect": a rejection in corporate America of glitzy junkets in favor of "volun-tourism," where convention attendees can spend a day helping citizens rebuild the city. That sentiment has also spread to corporate investment in local businesses hoping to sell franchises, such as the all-organic Naked Pizza company.
And aside from Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest – both of which have boomed in the past two years – the city counted 14 neighborhood festivals on a recent April weekend, as this late-night city seems determined to roulez through the recession.
New Orleanian Scott Couvillon, who helps run a new "un-junk mail" marketing service called Dukky, says the city has become "an entrepreneurial petri dish" because of several factors: hands-off regulation, and "empathic" young people looking for opportunity and a "coarse existence" in a place famous for its paucity of social and city services.
In a warehouse in a run-down neighborhood on St. Philip Street, Robbie Vitrano has created a laboratory of his own: Dozens of websites are running here as part of his ad agency's "venture marketing" effort helping start-ups conquer market share.
Young cultural anthropologists and former corporate raiders work in an open, newsroom-style environment, overseen by a "Jolly Louis" flag – a version of the pirates' skull and crossbones, showing Louis Armstrong against a backdrop of crossed trumpets.