How to spur economic development on traditional business corridors like South Broad Street – and how to make sure it benefits longtime local businesses, instead of only transplants – formed the topic of debate for nearly a dozen candidates for mayor of New Orleans on Thursday afternoon.
Moderated by former TV anchor Camille Whitworth and hosted by the South Broad Business Coalition at Rhodes Funeral Home, the forum drew a total of 10 candidates: former judge Michael Bagneris, registered nurse Ed Bruski, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, activist Byron Cole, educator Brandon Dorrington, businessman Troy Henry, entrepreneur Matthew Hill, economic developer Derrick Martin, activist Johnese Smith and CPA Tommie Vassel.
Only one of the frontrunning candidates, judge Desiree Charbonnet, did not attend. A place was set at the dais for businessman Frank Scurlock, but he never arrived.
Among the themes of the forum was that economic development in New Orleans over the last eight years has proceeded unevenly. Businessman Troy Henry, an opponent to Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010, said that African-American-owned businesses that flourished prior to Katrina have struggled under Landrieu.
“I bet you can’t tell me one African-American business that’s done well under this mayor,” Henry said.
Vindictive city politics get in the way of development for some businesses, said Tommie Vassel, when political enemies intentionally leave out those who supported their opponents.
“I’m not going to be kind of mayor who says, ‘Just because you didn’t support me, you can’t eat for the next eight years,'” Vassel said. “I want to be an inclusive mayor.”
Wealthy white investors continue to buy up property owned by blacks, especially in neighborhoods like Treme, and then rent or sell it for much higher, driving up costs for those who remain, said Byron Cole, son of the late well-known activist Dyan French “Mama D” Cole.
“We have a serious problem in New Orleans with gentrification,” Cole said.
“We are beginning to see a ‘white out’ of our culture,” said Johnese Smith. “Somehow along the way these families get moved out.”
“We’ve created a false gold rush for our land and our property,” said Matthew Hill. “The reason people are being gentrified is speculation. We know these houses are not worth what people are paying for them.”
Michael Bagneris said the racial wealth gap is obviously left over from the fact that black people first came to New Orleans “in chains,” while whites came to take property. But today, the city does too little to support its existing industries other than tourism, such as the Port of New Orleans, he said.
“We are the only port in the nation that doesn’t add on value to the product coming across the docks,” Bagneris said.
The city needs to invest more heavily in vocational training for young people, preparing them for the jobs that the city will recruit, several candidates said.
“Not every child is going to go to college,” Derrick Martin said.
Likewise, even major cultural events such as Jazz Fest and the Essence Festival do too little to support locals, Dorrington said. Local musicians and vendors frequently find themselves paid less than national acts or struggling to secure a booth, he said.
Cantrell said that different areas of the city need different investment strategies. The city should focus on cleaning up its own streetscapes, she said, while seeking from the state legislature “more flexibility with property taxes” to create incentives for development.
Ed Bruski said the recent failures at the Sewerage & Water Board — combined with ongoing problems with roads and crime — call into question the city’s ability even to promote economic development.
“We need to work on ourselves before we start telling everyone to come on in,” Bruski said. “We need to fix our house first.”