Growing on the River
Devastated by Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago, St. Bernard Parish has since rebounded to become the fastest growing parish in Louisiana.
“Bernard Parish is the best-kept secret in the region!”
This enthusiastic comment, from Meaghan McCormack, executive director of the St. Bernard Economic Development Foundation, is echoed by business people across the parish and supported by data from the recent U.S. Census and other sources — which suggests that the secret may be starting to get out.
“I think St. Bernard would really surprise people,” said Cat Damaré, owner and “creative co-conspirator” of Chicory Productions. Damaré recently launched venture exemplifies the startups that are helping to generate so much energy and excitement in the parish.
At the opposite end of the longevity spectrum is David Clements, owner of Clements Insurance. Clements, whose father founded the company nearly 50 years ago, traces the family’s St. Bernard roots to the 1700s. Yet his sentiments are the same.
“This place was always a hidden gem,” Clements said. “Now we’ve gone through such a transformation, people who moved away see the progress and are coming back.”
Clements’ observation highlights to the starting point for the current revitalization of St. Bernard: the dark, desperate days after Hurricane Katrina. Storm surge, primarily channeled up the now-closed Mississippi River Gulf Outlet — the infamous “Mr. Go” — just about washed the parish away. Some questioned whether the area would ever come back.
Roots in St. Bernard Parish are strong, however, and longtime residents pitched in and started the rebuilding work.
“Our people did a fabulous job of bringing St. Bernard back and bringing it back strong,” said Elizabeth Dauterive, CEO of the St. Bernard Chamber of Commerce, “and it has just kept going from there.”
Parish government played an important role in the comeback via programs such as “Sold on St. Bernard,” which packaged vacant lots for developers, laid down the infrastructure, established design standards and performance requirements, and streamlined the permitting process. Entire new neighborhoods were created.
“Five years later, the parish is really reaping the benefits of this program,” observed McCormack, who added that not only has the program provided the housing stock that has catalyzed the population growth, it has caused property values to increase exponentially, rewarding early purchasers and those pre-Katrina homeowners who held on to their lots. At the same time, housing prices are still lower than most of the metro area — the average home value in the parish is under $150,000.
While former residents continue to return as housing becomes available and economic opportunity increases, McCormack has seen people coming in from the Florida Panhandle and as far away as Michigan and the Northeast. The largest number, though, are from closer to home, particularly New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
What are some of the main attractions downriver? For younger families, the St. Bernard Parish school system’s ranking among the best in the state is a major draw. The cost of living is lower, including those housing prices. Crime is also low. The 16 miles of Mississippi riverfront, as well as coastal frontage, outdoor recreation, wildlife and scenic views are all among the area’s assets, as well as easy access to all that New Orleans and the rest of the region has to offer.
“People think this is a far-off place,” said Kerri Callais, managing partner of Callais Ice Service, “but when they come here, they find it’s as easy to get to as Metairie or Slidell.” Callais’ company takes full advantage of what she considers the parish’s prime location, delivering the 200-plus tons of ice it manufactures every day to some 300 customers that range from local groceries and restaurants to locations in Covington, Avondale and Mandeville.
“It takes half the time to get to Downtown New Orleans as it does from Jefferson Parish,” echoed Damaré of Chicory Productions. She and her husband took all these factors into consideration when they moved to Arabi three years ago. What they did not anticipate was the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost Damaré her job in the event production field. But she said the couple never considered leaving, and instead combined their talents to open up their virtual events and video production company.
While some of her larger clients are in the city or even spread throughout the nation, many are closer to home.
“In St. Bernard, we can provide services where they are not as widely available, especially for smaller businesses. Businesses here are more actively looking to work with other St. Bernard businesses.”
From her perspective, several advantages accrue from, as she put it, “being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
“I can bring my talents here in a way that I couldn’t necessarily do in New Orleans, and I can contribute in other ways. I want to be in a place where I can make a difference.” Damaré has backed this up by being an active Chamber member and serving on several local nonprofit boards. Her point underscores another aspect widely cited as a compelling attraction in the parish.
“It’s a smaller community, so everyone helps everyone else,” noted the Chamber’s Dauterive. “It doesn’t take long to meet everyone.”
“That’s something that has always been a staple here, that people try to use other St. Bernard businesses,” agreed Clements. “I always try to keep my business in St. Bernard.” He added that this common attitude has led to stronger business performance and accountability. “People provide a better level of service because their customers are their neighbors. I can’t imagine going into too many businesses in St. Bernard where I haven’t at least met the owners. There are very few strangers here.”
Few people have a better observation post for the region’s revitalization and sense of community than Jessica Reab, general manager of Brewster’s Restaurant. Another multigenerational family business — founded by Reab’s father 35 years ago — Reab experiences the new and the old on a daily basis.
“There’s such a sense of loyalty to our community,” she said. “People really want to support the local businesses and see us do well.” The newcomers seem to welcome this also, she added. “You meet new people and you get connected to them quickly.”
The majority of the patrons at Brewster’s are locals, augmented by visitors enjoying the outdoor and recreation opportunities. While Reab noted that the restaurant trade inherently requires working with some vendors from farther afield, she added that, “We try to do business locally as often as possible.”
“Now we’ve gone through such a transformation, people who moved away see the progress and are coming back.” David Clements
Of course, there are larger companies and industries in St. Bernard as well. According to McCormack, of the Economic Development Foundation, the parish’s traditional major sectors are maritime and energy. Large refineries still dot the landscape, and the Port of St. Bernard is a major player in the Mississippi River shipping industry. The healthcare and construction sectors are also major employers.
That said, “The goal of the foundation has been to diversify, to look at what the jobs of the future will be,” McCormack noted. One example of this is film and video production. Having recently doubled in size, The Ranch Film Studio is now the largest post-production facility in Louisiana. Driven in part by additional incentives offered by the parish government, a growing number of films are shooting there.
“This means the film companies are spending their money in the community, from buying the materials for set construction to hiring local caterers,” said McCormack.
Another example of diversification is the new Aerospace Manufacturing Program being offered at Nunez Community College in Chalmette, which McCormack says includes some NASA-affiliated companies currently working at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans that are now looking at relocating to St. Bernard.
St. Bernard has weathered the impacts of the recent disasters better than much of the region. To everyone’s considerable relief, the new $14 million floodwall protection systems held up during Hurricane Ida. The Parish may also have come through COVID-19 better than any other in the greater New Orleans area.
“I’m not aware of a single business that shut down solely because of COVID,” said McCormack. “Maybe because we have more space here, we had lower case numbers. We have fewer large office complexes and co-working spaces, and business owners really supported each other.”
Brewster’s Restaurant was one example of locals supporting locals.
“As soon as things shut down, we went straight to takeout only,” Reab recalled. “Then we went totally to curbside pickup. And once we figured out how that worked, we talked to some other restaurants to let them know they could do the same thing.”
The restaurant’s owners used the downtime to completely renovate its interior, something they had wanted to do for a while. “For us,” said Reab, “it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise.”
According to McCormack, it also helped that the economy in St. Bernard is largely founded on businesses considered to be essential, like refineries and shipping. “Our businesses needed to be able to continue operating to keep the country functioning.”
“A lot of lots are still vacant from Katrina, but there are so many houses going up my mind has been blown. And there is a lot of growth that’s still going to happen.” Jessica Reab
Dauterive noted what she thought was another important factor that helped businesses get through the pandemic: timely communication from parish government.
“The parish officials kept us informed,” she reported. “Knowing what was going on helped businesses figure out new ways to generate revenue streams.”
In addition to managing her family’s business, Callais has been a councilmember-at-large for six years, and she emphasized that St. Bernard Parish government works to create a business-friendly environment.
“We are ready and willing to help any business get started,” she said. “We help with the paperwork, the permits, finding a business location. We are hungry for new businesses as a parish government.”
One possible new economic engine on the horizon is the Port of New Orleans’ proposed container terminal, a potential $1.5 billion investment in the parish that would be built in Violet. The project is still in its early stages, including feasibility, environmental impact and other studies, and concerns remain about the potential implications for residential quality of life; but jobs, spending and infrastructure improvements could all be of considerable benefit to St. Bernard. Although the parish has its own port, the facility does not handle containers, so competition would not be a factor.
Looking back to where St. Bernard Parish was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the area’s recovery and revitalization is nothing short of remarkable. The destruction was horrific, easily on a par with that in New Orleans itself; but unlike the city, little national attention — let alone financial and volunteer resources — was focused on the area.
The rebuilding process is not complete. “A lot of lots are still vacant from Katrina,” Reab pointed out, “but there are so many houses going up, my mind has been blown. And there is a lot of growth that’s still going to happen.”
“Once the wave started, we’ve been catching momentum more and more,” concurred Clements. “More stores are opening up, more restaurants. Businesses are feeding off the population growth, and people are coming in because of the businesses. We are in a really good upward spiral right now, and I really see it continuing to move forward.”
The parish’s tangible growth is mirrored by shifting perceptions of St. Bernard by both residents and outsiders.
“I think most people saw it as a suburb of New Orleans, never saw it standing on its own,” noted Callais, adding that the pace of change has particularly accelerated in the past five to six years. “Now people are realizing it is a wonderful, affordable place to live and [can] still be in the middle of everything.”
“I’m excited about what’s to come,” enthused McCormack. “Things are moving downriver!”
St. Bernard By the Numbers
St. Bernard is the fastest-growing parish in Louisiana per the 2020 Census, with population increasing 21% from the previous Census to 48,172.
additional population growth is projected by 2025
Median household income, with 6.6% projected growth by 2025
Annual parish GDP, representing growth of 42% between 2016 and 2019
Total number of privately-owned businesses
cars enter the parish on an average day
of intercoastal waterway access support the port and shipping industry