It seems like a decade, but it has only been 13 months since the major disaster known as Hurricane Katrina struck.
The city of New Orleans looked like a bombed German city after World War II. But it wasn't a piece of history or a victim of a world war. It was an American city that experienced the biggest administrative blunder and mismanagement in the history of this great nation. Decades of malfeasance in the levee system and a new Homeland Security agency that was pitiful helped sink the ship.
A city that had a population approaching 500,000 was reduced to a pile of debris and now is holding no more than 40,000.
Today, there are more than 200,000 resilient souls bringing the city back. Many won't return, but there are significant numbers of new people coming to make a new start for themselves and join in the making of a new city. New Orleans is becoming economically diverse and appealing to a strong Black middle class. Within the next decade the city will exceed its old population of 500,000 and will have a much smaller percentage of poverty. Employment and opportunities will be the main reasons for staying.
Mayor Ray Nagin has so far lived up to his pledge of opening doors for Black-owned businesses. Historical procurements are taking place, and it has been made clear to the previous crew of "good ol' boys" that the times have changed. Diversity in the procurement process is now real. It seems that every educated person we meet in New Orleans is thinking like an entrepreneur.
In the past, many minority contractors were denied growth because they weren't bondable. Major bids required surety bonds, and they just weren't available to deserving minority businesses. Local insurance agents discriminated in how they offered their policies.
But today, like the Delfonics, we say, "Didn't we blow your mind this time?" The National Black Chamber of Commerce and the Surety and Fidelity Association have identified minority agents around the nation to work with New Orleans minority contractors who win bids requiring bonding. A bonding assistance program and a city that demands minority participation in every project reminds one of Maynard Jackson's Atlanta or Harold Washington's Chicago. Could New Orleans become the next "Boom Town" for Black-owned businesses?
Now that the playing field is starting to level, the city is going to demand a good inventory of Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. The Housing Authority of New Orleans alone will let contracts worth over $5 billion in neighborhood building. This will have, as a minimum, 20 percent minority participation, 5 percent women business participation and 10 percent Section 3 (training and employment for people living under the poverty level).
Note that I said neighborhood building, not affordable housing. Major projects will require a mix of scattered single family homes, multi-family residents, quality school availability, retail areas and modern medical facilities. We are talking about the real deal! A quality of life for the residents of New Orleans is starting to take form.
In all, there is going to be at least $70 billion in development and construction in New Orleans during the next 10 years. From a new airport and Trump Towers, to city infrastructure and levee protection — this city will be humming. At every turn, Black business will be involved. We are talking about a new "Mecca" for Black business. Are we ready?
Next year will be the "call" for qualified and bona fide architects, engineers, program managers, construction managers, contractors, realtors, investors, developers, trucking companies, landscapers, accountants, IT professionals and retail store operators. I can go on and on. Also, and equally important, will be the fact that there will be an extremely high demand for employees. There are more jobs than workers right now, and it will become more so in the coming years.
Harry C. Alford is the president/CEO and co-founder of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.