New Orleans Looks to Returning Students to Boost Economy

SHWAN CHOLLETTE
The Tiger's Roar
Savannah State University

Drive down Canal Street, New Orleans’ premier thoroughfare, and you can see wrecked buildings, trash bins filled to the brim with debris, and other vestiges of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Look closer and you will also see positive omens, like the “help wanted” sign hanging in the Radio Shack store.

“Don’t get me wrong, business is good, but it’ll get better when the college kids get back,” said store manager Joe Pomfrey, in between programming cell phones and answering questions from bustling shoppers.

With tourism crippled and other industries still on the mend from the flood, the nearly 34,000 students expected to resume classes at Dillard, Xavier, Tulane and other city-based universities in January will play a role in boosting the city’s immediate economy, but could also help sculpt a new New Orleans. By twists of fate, the “Big Easy” — world-recognized for its partying and pageantry — could be poised to become the “Big Campus.”

New Orleans’ population, down from a pre-Katrina 462,000 to an estimated 144,000, is spiking as students flock to their colleges after a semester’s absence forced by the flood. Economic development officials and others see their potential as part of the city’s long-term recovery.

“If the investment is made, higher education will produce the human capital needed for the future of a new New Orleans,” said Michael L. Lomax, former president of Dillard, now president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund. “This is an opportunity for the city to value something that it hasn’t valued — education.”

Area businesses already are salivating at the thought of student employees, and are ready to compensate them. A fast-food staple such as Burger King, which before Katrina paid $5.15 an hour, now guarantees weekly paychecks of at least $250, as well as a $6,000 sign-on bonus.

Employment-hungry students, such as Dillard senior Isaiah Stewart, are ready to cash in.

“I’m the oldest of five children and right now, three of us are in college. My parents don’t have any extra money to send to any of us. Plus, FEMA hasn’t kicked in the way I thought it would,” said Stewart, a native of Richmond, Calif., speaking of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “So I’m looking for a job so I can have a little spending money.”

Stewart said he had security experience and would check into working at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel, which is to serve as Dillard’s campus for the next seven months. The hotel said it planned to hold a job fair to link students like Stewart with part-time work.

“Hey, it’s a check and the job offers free garage parking. That’ll save me $165 a semester,” said Stewart, referring to the cost of a Dillard parking permit. “Whatever job I do get, I’m just believing that God will provide, because he’s always working it out for me.”

For Brenda Gilbert, by day a public health/physical therapy major at Dillard and by night a package handler for UPS, the opportunity to work isn’t just a chance to help the city rebound, but a good occasion to rebuild her life.

Gilbert, a New Orleans native and a junior, said managing the school’s volleyball squad was the only job she held while in school. But with Dillard’s varsity sports cancelled until fall, and her Seventh Ward home caked with brown muck or covered in musty mildew, she is counting on the income from her part-time job.

“I need money to pay for school,” and “to pay for necessities because I lost everything, and I have to start replacing everything I lost,” said Gilbert.

She started working at the UPS distribution center in December and has been promoted to a supervisory role.

“I was offered my job on the spot,” Gilbert said, noting that many employers are willing to work around class schedules.

“The jobs are there for them,” said Pomfrey, the Radio Shack manager. “Myself, I love working with the college kids because they’re well-mannered, and have the customer-service skills it takes to work in retail. Even better is that they have flexible schedules, and can work when we need them most, like around holidays.”

Freddye Hill, Dillard’s vice president for campus life, said university administrators understand the need for students to work, and have no problem with students working off-campus.

“Many of our students worked off-campus prior to Katrina, so some of them will have jobs to return to,” Hill said. Also, a wide-open job market will give many students a chance to land excellent positions.”

However, she sounded a note of caution for students working while Dillard is on its accelerated schedule, packing in two semesters between January and July.

“I just want to remind them that education is their first priority,” Hill said. “They’ll need to balance their time accordingly, because they’ll be expected to attend classes and take part in the community service aimed at rebuilding the city.” Several of the colleges plan to involve students in the city’s recovery through volunteer projects.

The additional students in the labor pool and the disposable income they earn will give New Orleans’ economy a much-needed boost, said Henry Charlot, director of economic development for the New Orleans Downtown Development District. The colleges and universities, meanwhile, could have a much more substantial effect on the city’s economy, he said.

“There’s a general agreement that a strong educational system is a real good component for economic development,” said Charlot. “With education come[s] ideas, which translate into economic opportunities.”

Charlot cited a push by the city’s higher education sector to start a medical and science district, dubbed “Silicon Bayou.”

“Once something like that is up and running, it requires university students and professors,” Charlot said. “They, in turn, settle in New Orleans and help provide assets to start that whole segment of the economy, and in that respect, the overall impact of higher education is very substantial.”

A 1993 University of New Orleans report by economist Tim Ryan, now chancellor of that institution, concluded that New Orleans’ 10 public and private universities pumped $2 billion into the local economy in a single year. Of that, $133 million was generated by out-of-town students.

Through partnerships with higher education, New Orleans has a chance to enhance its economic base and provide a better standard of living for its residents, said Lomax of UNCF.

“There’s a lot about New Orleans that was wonderful and the nation and the world found attractive: an old city that has retained its historic identity in an era when everything is homogenized and conformed,” Lomax said. “On the other hand, there were some real weaknesses in New Orleans, and one was a tourist-based economy that relied upon a low-paid and barely educated workforce that was basically African American.”

Lomax cautioned that in the rush to rebuild, New Orleans should make sure that tourism isn’t the city’s only economic engine.

“It does not encourage residents to aspire to education and it doesn’t encourage the city to invest in education,” he said.

In order for New Orleans to break the cycle of low wages and minimal education, the city and its colleges and universities must together find a way to attract talented students and retain them after they graduate, Lomax said. New Orleans also must improve primary and secondary schools so that students from low-income, black communities are prepared to succeed in college.

Down on Bourbon Street, meanwhile, in the heart of the tourist district, “The absence of college kids has definitely hurt our business because everything we do here, including the music we play and drinks we serve, is geared towards them,” said Madeline Schwartz, a manager at Utopia, a club that students used to frequent. “We also had a lot of college kids that worked for us, so we really missed them.”

“Outside of the business aspect,” she added, “we’re just glad to have the students back because they bring excitement with them, and that’s something we’re looking forward to.”

Shawn Chollette is a senior journalism and engineering major at Louisiana Tech University, and staff writer for the Gramblinite. This is part of a special 2006 series appearing in THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Magazine Second Semester Super Issue through a collaboration by Black College Wire (BlackCollegeWire.org) and THE BLACK COLLEGIAN (Blackcollegian.com), now celebrating its 35th publishing year. It may be reprinted intact with this credit included.