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Revitalizing New Orleans: Up Close And Personal

Recreating a city — one neighborhood "cluster" at a time.

Revitalization and economic development is the essence of Lara Fritts' work as executive director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC). Her primary concern is the Route 1 corridor from the Capital Beltway to Fort Belvoir.

During the last week of June she experienced revitalization on a scale so massive it is comparable to rebuilding the major cities of Europe following World War II. Yet, in many ways, it is even more daunting given the sociological complexities of recreating an American urban icon.

Fritts spent that week in New Orleans, La., as a member of a volunteer revitalization advisory team. The lessons, knowledge, insights, and experiences she brought home with her will not only last her a lifetime but also serve her well in dealing with SFDC's everyday tasks at hand.

"What I thought I was going to do before I left was work in the Mayor's Office of Recovery Management reviewing and evaluating plans for the city's 17 recovery zones devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. That's not what happened. It turned out to be even more rewarding than I had expected," she said, once again sitting in her office in the IMP Building on Route 1.

"As soon as we got there they put us on a bus and took us to the state capitol in Baton Rouge where we went over a recovery plan for the entire city. It was presented to the Louisiana Recovery Authority by Dr. Edward Blakely, executive director, Office of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans. Then we went back to New Orleans," she said.

Fritts was part of a group of economic development specialists that was divided into five member teams each concentrating on a particular area of the city with a focus on commercial projects designed to stimulate resettlement and rebirth. "We did not focus on residential. We concentrated on plans to rebuild the devastated economy," Fritts said.

The 17 recovery zones each have identified 17 target areas within that zone. One prime project has been singled out in each of those areas, according to Fritts.

Each zone's targeted revitalization activity is based on public assets within a specified business corridor. The ultimate goal is to stimulate private investment thereby creating an economic climate that will encourage people to return. In short, jobs equal growth, equal jobs, equals growth, until ultimately, once again, there is urban vibrancy.

As Blakely, who initiated his revitalization expertise, with the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 and worked with New York City following the attacks of 9/11, described the disaster recovery process: "There is a persistent ‘first mover’ disadvantage. Few people want to be the first to return to a neighborhood without neighbors or services.

"Property owners want to know that an investment in rebuilding will eventually give them a home and a community. Yet if everyone waits for someone else to start, neighborhoods can languish and the recovery can stall. The solution we propose is to focus on redevelopment at the level of the neighborhood, in a recognizable and sustainable pattern."

Thus far $117 million in federal funds has been granted to New Orleans for this effort. That could increase to $440 million ultimately, according to Fritts. "That's in addition to the FEMA money. But, that is running short," she said.

Residential rebuilding efforts are being funneled through what is known as the state's "Welcome Home Program," Fritts said. The city is opening "Welcome Home Centers" in cities where many former New Orleans residents now live plus one in New Orleans itself to encourage them to return and provide them with aid to do so.

MEMBERS of the volunteer teams were assigned to a specific recovery area. Fritts went into Ward 7 and more specifically into the area of St. Bernard at North Claiborne Avenue. According to the recovery plan document, "This area is considered by many to be the quintessential Creole neighborhood in New Orleans."

Once a thriving, economically viable area it was first decimated by the construction of Interstate 10 that "virtually destroyed its prosperous business district" and then by the flood waters of the breached levies. The most prominent business in this area was one of the oldest neighborhood markets in the city — The Circle Grocery.

That became Fritts' primary assignment. "The Circle Grocery was so well known that it was pictured in Time and Newsweek magazines after the flood and was featured in Spike Lee's documentary on the New Orleans disaster," she said.

"It was shocking to see how many buildings were still boarded up two years after the floods because of a lack of business. The Circle Grocery was one of them," Fritts said.

"This was not just a grocery. It was like a mini Wal Mart for that area. They sold everything from groceries to clothing and many other items. It even had a dentist office. And, it was a favorite neighborhood social center," she said.

Working with economic demographers and a statistics professor from Clemson University, Fritts and her colleagues created a survey form to develop a qualitative evaluation of the area. "We did door-to-door property evaluations to determine possible viable future customers for a reopened Circle Grocery," Fritts said.

"One of the ideas we suggested was the creation of an area Facade Improvement Program. I was able to give them examples and methodologies of all the things we have done here on Route 1 with such a program. I felt we offered a lot of valid suggestions," she said.

"There is so much humanity, pride, compassion and initiative among the people throughout that entire city. One waitress we met said she was waitressing only at night so she could help rebuild houses during the day," Fritts said.

Fritts cited as a prime example of individual initiative a place called "Wisdom." It's an event hall along the lines of the Waterford in Springfield, according to Fritts.

"It's owned by David and Glenn Amadee and was badly damaged in the flood. Now they have totally rehabilitated it on their own and it’s open for business," she said.

"They are also helping others rehabilitate properties and have personally replaced many of the trees in the Ward 7 area. They're like their own development corporation," she said.

Fritts feels that the many contacts she made among other economic development professionals such as Blakely could be of real benefit to SFDC in the future. "It was probably the most challenging and rewarding week of my professional career. It was an incredible experience," Fritts said.