Making the Westbank the Best Bank
For an organization celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Algiers Economic Development Foundation has a remarkably low profile – just like that often-overlooked area of the city that it serves.
Executive Director Kelsey Foster is working to raise awareness on both accounts, without sacrificing those aspects of Westbank living that make Algiers such an attractive place for business and home owners alike.
AEDF’s mission is “to build a sustainable, business-friendly environment that grows investments and jobs in Westbank New Orleans through advocacy, and business development, recruitment and retention.” The organization advances its mission through three main program areas, which is something of a reset that has followed both the COVID-19 pandemic and Foster’s assumption of the ED role just as it hit, in April 2020.
The first and most obvious focus is traditional economic development.
“We work with site selectors, developers, business owners, anyone interested in locating in Algiers,” explained Foster.
While the area has some larger businesses, the foundation puts much of its energy into small business support. “It’s concierge-type service,” said Foster. “We offer one-on-one consultation for business owners. We help them determine what their business needs are and connect them to other businesses that can provide those services.”
AEDF is equally happy to assist existing business owners and budding entrepreneurs, and among the organization’s most popular events are their regular business mixers. After hitting the pause button for the pandemic, the most recent mixer was attended by more than 70 businesspeople.
Community development is another key programmatic area for the foundation.
“You can’t do business in a place without residents,” explained Foster.
The same housing issues that challenge the rest of New Orleans confront Algiers, including the lack of affordable housing. Foster anticipates some 500 new housing units coming online over the next two years, across the affordability spectrum. Veteran housing is also on the horizon, an important factor for an area home to most of the region’s military facilities.
Improving transit access also falls under the community development rubric.
“One-third of Algerines don’t have regular access to a vehicle,” she said, explaining that this fact makes residents dependent not just on RTA bus service but also the ferries, which transport many people to and from their workplaces in the CBD or French Quarter every day. Anyone who has followed the epic saga of the new ferries and the attendant scheduling issues will understand how much of Foster’s time and attention goes to this issue.
The final main piece is workforce development, with a particular focus on assisting high school students who either live or attend school in Algiers. The rationale is that improving job prospects and skills for young Algerines increases the worker pool for local businesses while raising the standard of living for local families.
“The program includes job exposure, doing an internship or job shadow for a job the student has researched,” said Foster. “We match them with Algiers businesses. Workforce skills are another part. We help the students create draft resumes, for jobs or for college, and get them professionally reviewed.”
Also included are mock interviews, for which the students are thoroughly prepped, right down to how to dress appropriately. The interviews are with people in the industry in which the student has indicated interest, and may even lead to actual job offers.
The design of these programs has been driven by research Foster and her team conducted during the downtime during the pandemic. The centerpiece of this was a small business survey that AEDF conducted, which found that 75% of business owners in Old Algiers, and 55% overall in Algiers, own their location.
“This means that businesses here are more invested in the community,” observed Foster. “It also makes them more sustainable, since they are not susceptible to rising rents.”
This also helped businesses survive reduced revenue during COVID; as Foster noted, “It’s an important tool for anti-displacement.” Related good news is that the survey found no racial disparities in terms of business property ownership percentages. And while the survey found an increase in home-based professional businesses, the area is bucking the emerging national trend of fewer brick and mortar storefronts.
“We’re still affordable, still a place where people want to do business, where you can be a mom-and-pop operation,” concluded Foster. “For our anniversary, we are celebrating the future, but we’re a great place to be today.”
For more information on AEDF, check the organization’s website, www.algierseconomic.com.