- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Business is beginning to rebound six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated this tourism-dependent city.

Shops and restaurants report that receipts are off 40 percent to 75 percent, but business owners are optimistic about the return of cruise and convention business in June.

“It’s getting better every day,” said Caroline Nead, manager of Arius Tile Company on Jackson Square in the French Quarter. “It’s like going fishing — some days are good, some bad. Weekends are better, but it’s no guarantee.”

Katrina cut business in half at Maskarade, a mask store on St. Ann Street.

“We thought after 9/11, that was the kiss of death, but that was nothing,” said Mary Behlar, who has owned the shop for 15 years.

Halloween was particularly rough for the shop, which does much of its business in October. The store typically sells 500 masks a day during Halloween weekend, but last October, she sold 20 that weekend.

“It’s kind of survival of the fittest. People who don’t have Internet, I don’t know how they made it.”

Business owners who need tourists and conventiongoers in order to stay afloat are looking forward to the festival season, particularly New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, or Jazz Fest, the annual music festival that will be held on the weekends of April 28 and May 5.

“Jazz Fest plays a big role. We’re depending on that,” said Amer Bader, owner of the Oceana Grill on Conti Street.

Business has been off 40 percent, Mr. Bader said, but sales are picking up and the Cajun restaurant reopened for lunch three weeks ago. It was one of the first restaurants to get up and running after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, opening for dinner Oct. 2.

So far, 1,265 of New Orleans’ 3,088 restaurants have reopened, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Tourism is a $15.5 billion annual industry in New Orleans and accounts for 85,000 employees and 40 percent of the city’s tax revenue, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

Last month’s eight-day Mardi Gras celebration brought in 700,000 visitors and $2 million in taxes, according to preliminary estimates by the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Attendance was about 65 percent to 70 percent of normal, the bureau said.

The pre-Lenten party typically rakes in $20.5 million in tax revenue, according to the tourism marketing group.

Louisiana this month debuted a $7 million national advertising campaign, the biggest in the state’s history, to lure tourists back to the city.

The city’s first major convention will be held in June, when the American Library Association brings 20,000 members to town. Cruise ships also will return then, which business owners hope will drop off more tourists who want to spend their money.

“There are no cruise ships, no conventions, no sporting events” right now, said Beth Rosenfeld, manager of Gallery Rinard art gallery on Royal Street.

“It’s picked up since Mardi Gras, but it’s still pretty slow. Thank God for the Internet,” Ms. Rosenfeld said, adding that sales have been off 50 percent to 75 percent. “We’re paying our bills, so it could be a lot worse.”

For Kishin and Susan Mirpuri, who own three shops on Jackson Square, it has been worse.

They have not paid themselves salaries since Katrina hit, and they juggle the stores between the two of them.

“We’re just surviving, hardly paying the rent,” Mr. Mirpuri said. They have owned Rendezvous Inc., Oh Susannah Doll Collection and Ooh La La Gallerie on St. Peter Street for 31 years.

Mr. Mirpuri said they can hold on for about four more months, but his wife, who was raised in Silver Spring and attended Northwood High School, was more optimistic, “Maybe it’ll get better. We have to think positive.”

A major problem for business owners such as the Mirpuris has been finding enough workers willing to take jobs that used to pay minimum wage.

“They can go to McDonald’s,” which pays more, Mr. Mirpuri said.

Of Ms. Behlar’s six employees, four lost their homes. Only two of the 25 local artists who made masks for Maskarade have returned, mainly because rents are soaring in New Orleans. Apartments that used to cost $500 a month now run $800 or $1,000, she said.

The Gumbo Shop restaurant on South Front Street has been advertising for workers since it reopened Dec. 8, said manager Tim Lange.

“Nobody is coming in the door,” he said.

The restaurant had another location in Biloxi, Miss., but it was washed out by Katrina. The owners are not planning to rebuild it.

“Our biggest problem is employees. We’re trying to wean down as much as possible,” said Mr. Lange, who was born and raised in New Orleans.

Labor is “an exceedingly difficult issue,” said Mr. Bader, of the Oceana Grill.

Dishwashers used to make $5.15 an hour. Now, “$10, they laugh. They expect $12 or $13 per hour,” he said.

Mr. Bader blames part of the labor shortage on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is still paying for former residents’ housing. When FEMA stops paying them, he said, they will “come back to reality” and get a job.

“It’s going to come back,” Mr. Bader said. “We’re here to stay.”

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