Over at Eater New Orleans, Gwendolyn Knapp sums up the ill-fated “Jack & Jake’s” grocery project quite aptly – as a money pit.
The project began in 2011, when Alembic Community Development bought the former Myrtle Banks Elementary School on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. The school, built in 1910, had closed in 2002 and was gutted by fire in 2008. The Orleans Parish School Board had already determined that it wasn’t cost-effective to preserve the building, but Alembic was determined to save the façade.
Alembic sought to renovate the building with offices and a large grocery store as an “anchor.” Jack & Jake’s, a wholesale grocery company founded in 2010, was chosen to open its inaugural retail site at the location.
Jack & Jake’s CEO, John Burns, immediately announced grandiose plans for the grocery, including a beer cave, a bar, and (count ‘em) two restaurants. No expense would be spared. The grocery itself would feature fresh food from local farms, ranches, and fisheries – yet somehow still remain affordable for residents of Central City.
In other words, Burns – a man who had never run a retail grocery before – made wild promises that were blithely accepted by investors and public officials.
By 2013 Alembic had managed to arrange financing for the $17.7 million renovation, heavily utilizing federal and state tax incentives. These included New Market Tax Credits, which were created in 2000 for the purpose of assisting low income communities and residents. These highly generous credits return 39% of the investment. Historic tax credits provided additional incentives, and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and the Foundation for Louisiana also opted to pony up some dough.
The following year, in 2014, the city announced that it was awarding the project a $1 million loan from the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, half of which was forgivable if the grocery simply opened.
The grocery was supposed to open in October 2014, but blew past that date. Burns was claiming that the store would open by the end of the summer as of May 2015. As of August, Burns was tweeting from the International Food Expo in Milan, and investors were figuring out that perhaps this just wasn’t happening.
In early September, with the writing already on the wall, Burns abruptly resigned as CEO. Alembic founder Benjamin Warnke was forced to step in as interim CEO. Warnke tried to paint the move as a natural shift from a “visionary” phase to an “operational” one, but conceded that investors had been forced to come up with additional money while the market remained closed.
Earlier this month, there were some small signs of life at the erstwhile Myrtle Banks. A sandwich shop and French Truck Coffee began opening on site weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. However, the bulk of the site, including the grocery, remain closed.
Finally, just this past week, the ball finally dropped. Jack & Jake’s would not be opening at all. Instead, it would be rebranded as “Dryades Public Market” after the original name for the street. Three Muses chef Dan Esses, who also produces his own brand of pastas and sauces, was brought in to manage the project.
Esses says he will have the store open by the end of the year, but there will be no restaurants. Esses is also putting the kibosh on the laundry-list of high-end nonsense planned by Burns, and claims that while he will still try to source locally, his primary goal will be to provide affordable groceries.
Still, consider me skeptical. Esses has been brought in late in the game to clean up an awful mess, a mess that found its nexus in an obvious desire to gentrify Central City on the backs of taxpayers. The vast, sprawling space, with its crystal chandeliers and other expensive fixtures, could never have functioned as the discount grocery that Central City residents actually need. This was not a good faith effort gone wrong; it was a crass exercise that failed to even achieve its own goals.
To put it another way, the Jack & Jake’s a/k/a Dryades Public Market project is kind of like a failed version of the St. Roch Market renovation. Heck, the St. Roch Market may be an amenity for the wealthy instead of a resource for local residents, but at least the darn thing is open. That’s meta-level failure.
Even presuming Esses’ sincere desire to revamp the project (presumably at additional expense, as renovations are themselves renovated), this whole scheme was so ill-conceived from the outset that it simply may not be salvageable.
However, in the meantime, I would recommend that everyone visit the Dryades Public Market. After all, you should see what your tax dollars are paying for.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.