Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Small-Business Owners Invest in Big Picture

Eyesore Becomes Center for Education and Entrepreneurs

A building that was once a neglected neighborhood pharmacy, eyesore, as well as a hangout for unemployed men who spent their days on milk crates, is giving a New Orleans neighborhood a needed, new and improved look. The old, beige, dull and depressing building with a tattered roof and crumbling fa├žade has been replaced by a brand new green and yellow concrete building that is part office and part community center. At the intersection of North Galvez Street and Piety Street sits the Entergy Innovation Center. “Small businesses are the backbone of the city,” says Connie Jacobs, owner of Unlimited Communications. Unlimited Communications sells cell phones and serves as a bill-pay center for residents.

Jacobs is filling a gap for many residents who have returned to the Upper 9th Ward neighborhood. “A lot of people who moved back to this area did not have cars or checking accounts, so they had a lot of trouble getting their utility payments out to companies on time,” says Jacobs. Jacobs and her daughter Darryl Jacobs-Lumpkins, owner of Lollipop Boutique are two of the first small-business tenants in the center. There’s room for at least six and the center opened over the summer. “I wanted to help the neighborhood re-establish itself and become a better place for not just residents but business owners as well. A lot of businesses that came back after Hurricane Katrina ignored this area,” says Jacobs-Lumpkins. Her boutique sells children’s clothing and shoes.

The overall goal of the center is to serve as a business connector and provide self-help services like free financial seminars, computer literacy courses and job training sessions. Through a partnership with educators, volunteers and business owners, the center can set a tone of self-reliance in a part of the city where Katrina’s baggage is still ever present. It’s not out of the ordinary to walk down a block and find trees sitting in the middle of the road or see homes leaning to the side, as if they’re waiting for a strong wind to topple them onto the ground. Still, none of it deters or distracts those who believe the community deserves a fair chance at reshaping its image. “We partnered with community groups and activists in the neighborhood to make sure that what was coming to the Entergy Center met the needs of the people, not necessarily the business owners,” says Jo Ann Minor, building manager and business consultant.

A combination of funds from grants and local businesses helped cover the cost of the facelift to the former Galvez Pharmacy. The center’s vision and design were developed by The Idea Village, a local non-profit agency. Business owners like Jacobs, the first to invest in the area received discounted rent for one year. It’s a financial incentive for her that was necessary and one she certainly appreciates. Hurricane Katrina wiped out all four of Jacobs’ telecommunications stores that were spread throughout the city. She’d been in business for more than 20 years. She spent two months living in Atlanta following Hurricane Katrina.

“We got here and nothing was standing,” says Jacobs. These days, she’s reaping the benefits of her decision to return home and is optimistic about the future.“Business is good,” says Jacobs. “I hope the city comes back and more entrepreneurs hire local people,” she adds.

Minor believes business owners like Jacobs’ may shift the focus and serve as an encouraging symbol for those uncertain about returning to New Orleans. To fill the open rental slots and get the word out, Minor is a walking advertising machine for the center. “I go out to the bus stop that’s right outside our door and I tell people about what we have going on here at the center,” says Minor.

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