APPEL: Gambit Is Asking If New Orleans Is Worth It, And It’s A Darn Good Question

Today, at Gambit Weekly there is an interesting, if depressing, article entitled “Is New Orleans worth it?” It’s a shame such a question would be asked 12 years after the massive federal dollars invested in bringing the city back after Katrina…

It’s a strange time for the young and ambitious in New Orleans.

In the years following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, the city has loomed large in the popular imagination. Capitalizing on a narrative of recovery, local business and civic leaders have cast New Orleans as a revitalized, dynamic metropolitan area and an ideal home for millennials and young professionals.

In terms of demographics, at least, younger people are ascendant in the city: Recent research from the Urban Land Institute charts an 8.5 percent increase in the number of millennials moving to New Orleans between 2010-2015, making it one of the country’s most popular destinations for that age group. Michael Hecht, CEO of the economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc. (GNO Inc.), says young people are arriving to take advantage of the area’s storied culture; a lower cost of living than in major metro areas such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago; and the sense of purpose offered by a city on the mend.

But some of those same young people are quietly expressing doubts about the viability of remaining in New Orleans. They’re talking about a perceived lack of career opportunities, compensation they say hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the country, and a cost of living (particularly in terms of housing) that strains people at all but the highest income levels. There’s also frustration over what many characterize as widespread institutional failure, from crumbling infrastructure to a network of local schools that varies wildly in quality — a serious drawback for people ready to start families.

This isn’t exactly a wake-up call. We have known for years that it would be coming.

Let me make this simple. Four decades ago New Orleans was in direct competition with Atlanta and Houston for corporate businesses. New Orleans was a boom town. New Orleans East was booming, East Jefferson was booming, the Central Business District was booming, everywhere one looked there was growth and prosperity. But for all the ensuing years we have allowed ourselves to be guided by political leaders that looked to business as a source of revenue for social programs and patronage and not as a source of prosperity for the people.

The result, besides the loss of jobs, has been absolute devastation of the Sewerage & Water Board, the New Orleans Police Department, the Streets Department, the schools, the Parks and Parkway Commission, and on and on. Simply put, to a great extent the decline has come about for two reasons; falling revenues due to a lack of economic activity, and the diversion by the city’s leaders of what revenues were available to short-term political purposes and patronage.

I have the advantage, if you can call it that, of knowing our history because I lived here my whole life. I have seen the good and now the really bad. I have seen really terrible leadership destroy what was at once the “Queen City of the South” and turn it into a poor urban shadow of itself.

A classic example was when, after Katrina, the best urban planning minds in the country advised to shrink the city footprint so that expected revenues from a diminished population and greatly reduced economy would match critical expenses and then slowly build the City out as the economy improved. The best and brightest in the land were summarily discharged under accusations of racism after a meeting between the Mayor and “community leaders.” Well the “community leaders” got what they wanted and we have not been the same since. New Orleans is ranked almost universally last in every measure of success that a city can be measured by.

I feel really bad as I read the Gambit piece, but it is not altogether unexpected. The simple facts are that we continue to tolerate people in leadership positions that have no idea how to run a 21st-century economic center. The so-called leaders in the Big Easy fail to understand that it is impossible for government to create jobs, only free enterprise can. Worse, none of these people appear to have the backbone to make decisions that create positive long term outcomes, instead of following the latest liberal fads that come along or caving in to the loudest proponent of that undefined but popular cry of “social justice!”

If we want a city that can lead its citizens to prosperity by creating decent jobs then we must start acting like it. The only way to change things is to cast off decades of failed concepts and to move forward through action and not hollow words an open arm effort to attract business. This in itself is the only solution to our problems but even if started today it would take years to see results. And in the meantime we’re not going to like the answer to Gambit’s question.

If the citizens of New Orleans are not prepared to undertake such a commitment then we must expect to read about an ever growing reverse migration of young, productive citizens, along with a bunch of not so young that are looking for safety and contentment. New Orleans will be, as it has been over the last many years, a fun place to visit for a couple of days and then to leave from to go home to a prosperous life. Of course if the city’s largely ruined police department can’t get a handle on the crime situation then it may not even be that.

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