BOB MOON: President Bush spent this day checking up on reconstruction along the Gulf coast. It’s dragged on a year and a half since Hurricane Katrina, slowed by a lack of housing, jobs and schools.
A congressional committee votes next week on a billion dollars in housing aid to encourage displaced residents to return to Louisiana. Meantime, small businesses are finding life’s not so easy . . . in the Big Easy.
[“Violets” store ambience]
At “Violets,” a French Quarter dress shop, business is down by half. Co-owner Marianne Lewis has found some hope in organizing small-business owners to fight for their interests.
The group now has 1,200 members. And while that’s lifted her spirits, Lewis thinks New Orleans has been short-changed.
MARIANNE LEWIS: In New York, after 9/11, they received over $700 million in grant money to keep small businesses afloat. And this money started being delivered to businesses three months after the disaster happened. Meanwhile, after Katrina, they offered no grant money for businesses down here. Absolutely nothing. And the SBA was a mess. It took most people eight months to a year just to get their SBA loan, if they could . . . qualified for it. And so we basically formed a small nonprofit for ourselves made up completely of small-business owners. And we started with maybe a dozen members, and now we’re up to 1,200, simply to say this isn’t fair. And we’ve been lobbying with the state, the city and the federal government for more relief.
And recently, we actually got passed a hundred million dollar grant program. But this is 18 months later now, is it? (Laughs) You know, and we got a hundred million. Do you know how many businesses had to close their doors in that time, that could have been helped? I mean, my business has been around for 10 years, but we have members who have had their businesses since 1940, in their family. And they make their own speciality pralines. Or they are the second-oldest kite shop in North America. I mean these are businesses that once you lose them, it’s not like the third-oldest kite shop is gonna take their place. You know . . . it might be a Starbucks. It might be, you know . . . a Gap, or Banana Republic.
Before . . . when the storm first happened, I was very excited to get down here, to get back. And we opened and say, “Oh my God, this is gonna be fabulous. The city had a lot of problems, but we’re going to rebuild. We’re gonna fix all the schools, all the problems, there’ll be no crime.” I mean I was thinking this was gonna be Utopia! And then by January, I was broken down because nothing was happening. There was no leadership.
And then, you know, I read a little notice in the paper that somebody was looking for other business owners to come together for this meeting about helping each other. And I just showed up. And being involved in Second Wind and trying to make a difference in my own little pocket of the recovery has allowed me to stay.
And at this point, when business owners complain that “Oh my God, my business is so down. You know, I’m not doing anything.” I said, well what are you doing about it? Not just for yourself, but . . . you know, you need to get involved. You need to make some noise. You need to make sure that the right things are being done. Or else don’t complain.
Sometimes, I have my days that I’m like, “Oh my God, I’ve gotta go.” But then, you know . . . I live in the French Quarter. And where else can I move to that I open up my balcony window and I hear music playing on the street? Like really great music.
Luckily, enough of the time something reminds me that . . . why I love this city and I really do want to stay. I just hope that the leadership is there to make the city someplace we can all live in for a very long time.
MOON: Marianne Lewis, who owns the “Violets” dress shop in New Orleans’ French Quarter. She was interviewed by Marketplace’s John Dimsdale.
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