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Mid-City Market Opening Brings Winn-Dixie, Development Debate
As Mid-City Market prepares for its grand opening, Thomas Mattera looks at the continuing debate about the virtues of chain-based development.
On Wednesday, July 31, officials will mark the grand opening of the new Winn Dixie location on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City. To commemorate the occasion the company is celebrating with the requisite pomp and circumstance, hosting an open house on Thursday evening with prepared food tastings and live music.
For many participating in the festivities, it will be their first trip both to the Winn Dixie itself and to the Mid-City Market, the $38 million development that the new supermarket anchors. The unveiling of the newest tributary in the one-time neighborhood food desert will act as the defacto grand opening of the development as a whole, bringing full circle the facelift of the last stretch of Carrollton Ave. that was still left blighted by Katrina and the Federal Flood.
Joining the Jacksonville-based regional supermarket giant at Mid-City Market are installations of more than a half dozen national powerhouses including Office Depot, Panera, and Verizon Wireless as well as a few smaller regional outfits like Felipe's Taqueria, Jefferson Feed and Oschner. Projected to bring in $60 million in annual revenue and boost New Orleans sales tax revenue once it opens in full, the development is also expected to generate over 200 full time and 150 part time jobs.
Championed repeatedly by Mayor Landrieu and Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the Stirling Properties development has also long enjoyed the support of the Mid-City Neighborhood Assocation, as President Mathew Morgan points to end of the longtime Rouses grocery store monopoly over the area, while extolling the Mid-City Market’s virtues.
“This is an area that was sorely lacking in grocery stores and office supply places," he said. "Before this development, there was just one grocery store for an enormous area. It is putting a pretty blighted space back into commerce and showing that Mid-City is a place where people want to do business.”
While there seems to be no debate on the surface regarding the need for another source of fresh food in a city that possesses only one grocery store for every 14,000 people, there are those who see flaws in the overall development model behind the Mid-City Market. Seemingly drowned out by the sounds of giant scissors cutting ribbons and back-slapping is the point of view of those who feel the Mid-City Market model was not the best one for NOLA’s long term success.
“This is a step in the wrong direction,” says Mark Strella, Project Coordinator for Stay Local!, an organization that advocates for the importance of local business in New Orleans. “We could be doing better, getting more creative, and pushing for a higher quality of development.”
Strella believes more of an effort should have been made to include smaller New Orleans businesses in the development, as opposed to the group of national chains that eventually became the overwhelming majority in the finished product. He points to a study conducted by the Urban Conservancy in 2009 that found that a dollar spent at a Magazine Street merchant brings back twice as much in local recirculation revenue than one spent at a SuperTarget. The study goes on to state that if ten percent of all retail spending in Orleans Parish were shifted from chain to local, it would mean an annual $60 million addition to the NOLA economy.
“Packing a development with chains provides the least possible local economic boost,” Strella says. “The money leaks out of the city and up the ladder to the corporate headquarters wherever that may be. You lose the multiplier effect of the dollar recirculating in the economy.”
As an alternative, Strella points to the Refresh Project, the 60,000 sqare foot development that will revamp the former location of Schwegmann’s Grocery Store at the intersection of Broad and Bienville Streets in MidCity. Though the site, which broke ground in early May, will be headlined by a Whole Foods, it will also feature a full service Liberty’s Kitchen, a non-profit that works to provide New Orleans youth with opportunities in the culinary industry. The site will also contain the Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, a medical school affiliated teaching kitchen that will look to lower the local rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity through nutritional education.
A comparison of the Mid-City Market and Refresh Project is far from a simple apples to apples undertaking. The two developments are different situations in many ways, the most notable being that the Refresh Project required an influx of public dollars to make it financially viable. This included a $1 million, half forgivable loan from the New Orleans Fresh Food Retailer Initiative to non-profit developer Broad Community Connections.
Proponents have asserted that the subsidies were essential, as the area around the Refresh site was too economically depressed for a developer to charge enough rent to break even.
“Awarding this FFRI loan is an important step toward promoting a better quality of life for residents in this Mid-City neighborhood and fostering healthier lifestyle habits for all of our citizens, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said when the Whole Foods grant was awarded. ”Projects like this create jobs, generate taxes, bring vacant properties back into commerce and reinvigorate neighborhoods."
The area around Mid-City Market, however, is a different story. Though pockets of blight still exist, a walk around the Mid-City Market’s immediate area reveals a neighborhood that seems closer in economic stability to its Lakeview neighbors to the North than the Treme neighborhood below Broad St that surrounds the Refresh Project site. As Stirling says on its website advertising the MCM to prospective tenants, “The stable income base and encouraging demographics verifies the area’s ability to thrive since Hurricane Katrina.”
Beyond Big Box
The ability to attract a familiar big box corporation should not be an automatic reason to do so, says Ray Cannata, the Presbyterian Minister and former President of the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association who once completed a quest to eat at every local restaurant in New Orleans. He is worried about the quality of jobs that will be created by the Mid-City Market, the impact on local businesses already on Carollton, and the re-introduction of more national chain businesses after so many left in the wake of Katrina.
“To me, New Orleans is the greatest city in the world because of the uniqueness, everything mixed together”, he says. “Mid-City is a place that its amazing how its come back, with funky local places popping up everywhere. Those (MCM) spots had other options for getting filled and we jumped the gun to pander to these large corporations that will destroy at least as many jobs as they create."
Tangible alternative options exist for different ways to insure the health and safety of small business, argues Andrew Ward, PHD candidate at Tulane’s Payson Center for International Development.
“The alternative is long term vision - something that is woefully lacking in this town and our country in general. Sheltering our own market to incubate local companies such that they can actually compete with monstrous multinationals is crucial,” he says in describing the thesis behind his currently in-progress dissertation. “Historically, New Orleans has allowed them to rush in for several key reasons: It's better than blight, corporations have enormous resources and can actualize 'development' plans quickly, and opening such spaces up to local development takes time, jockeying between various local interest groups and involves more risk of failure, and return to blight.”
Ward notes that often multinationals are allowed into promising retail space for the same reason why it is so difficult to imagine such an impoverished city actually being able to resist the idea of immediately redeveloping blight by any means necessary: money. National companies have plenty to use to move in while New Orleans itself has only enough to fund small developments and many New Orleanians have none at all to put towards shopping local, that is, if they even want to in the face of a personally preferred national option.
This economic reality, Councilwoman Guidry asserts, rendered the debate moot when it came to the Mid-City Market. She states that, just as the Refresh Project pursued a development strategy out of monetary need, the MidCity Market’s hand was forced by special situational factors.
“Due to the cost of this large commercial property and the expense of the serious environmental remediation work that had to be done before the property could be developed, I question whether the Refresh Project model could have been economically feasible there," she said. "Both developments and project models serve a purpose and serve the public, and I am excited about the local jobs, retail opportunities and revenue that each will offer."
Of course, any implementation of Ward’s bold strategy will have to wait until another project, one long after the curtain has dropped on opening night of the new Winn Dixie on Wednesday. A solid turnout is anticipated, indicative of the widely expected commercial success for the Mid-City Market as it replaces the last remnants of Katrina on bustling North Carrollton.
All sides with a vested interest will now wait to see how the new neighborhood addition impacts its new home.
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