Top 10 Stories of 2021
Last year, every business story in our Top 10 related back to the biggest issue in the world: COVID-19. It was an unprecedented year, to be sure, and one we were all happy to see end, the prevailing hope being that next year would surely be better.
Unfortunately, not only has the pandemic continued to rage in 2021, on August 29 — the 16th anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina made its arrival — the region was slammed by one of most powerful storms ever to hit the United States. Hurricane Ida’s Category 4 winds and storm surge knocked out power, caused widespread destruction and even temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River. In its wake, the city struggled with basic services like trash, electricity, and water, along with mass evacuations that further disrupted schooling and exacerbated workforce issues, as well as supply chain problems.
So much for 2021 offering relief to struggling businesses.
However, as the Biz New Orleans editorial team sat down to go over the contenders for the top business stories of the year, what we found were a surprising number of bright spots. For one, both the film industry and residential real estate industries continued to break records. Then you had the boom in hotel construction in and around Downtown, including the much-anticipated arrival of the city’s biggest luxury offering to-date, Four Seasons New Orleans, whose penthouse sales also broke residential real estate records.
This year we also had big global players showing their interest in the Crescent City. While Caesars took over naming rights to the Superdome for the next 20 years and announced a rebranding and $325 million in renovations to Harrah’s Casino, other massive companies like Shutterstock, Procore and Cint bought up three of our homegrown tech companies in deals that just got bigger and bigger, finally reaching the $1 billion “unicorn” status. Plus, in another long-awaited win, after sitting dormant with no plans since 2009, the former Six Flags site in New Orleans East finally has a future.
Yes, our region still has its challenges — including some that have really hit breaking point levels this year — but we are also heading strongly into new directions, continuing to diversify our economy and create new opportunities for the future.
Here’s to a (dare we hope for it) brighter 2022!
Big Anniversaries in 2021
I25 Port NOLA
I25 Kingsley House
I00 Delgado Community College
70 Adams and Reese
65 Landis Construction
65 Friends of Cabildo
60 Preservation Hall
60 Stennis Space Center
60 American Tile & Terrazzo/Terrazzo Masters
I5 Rennaissance Publishing
I5 Red Group
10 Team Gleason Foundation
1. Three Big Tech Exits Take the Local Startup Industry to New Heights
Southeast Louisiana has long been fighting to diversify its economy, and a big part of that has been a focus on building up a strong entrepreneurism sector, including a support system for startups anchored by organizations like Propeller and Idea Village, as well as a strong technology and media sector, in part through a digital media tax credit program that offers companies a 25% credit for qualified in-state payroll.
While the region has experienced multiple wins in the startup and tech sectors, in 2021 three New Orleans-based technology startups sold for large sums; included among them was the region’s first “unicorn,” a startup valued at over $1 billion.
The first sale took place January 26, when Turbosquid — an online marketplace for 3D digital models created by New Orleans natives Matt and Andy Wisdom in 2000 — sold to New York-based Shutterstock for $75 million. Turbosquid had grown to be the largest marketplace in the world for online models. At the time of the sale, the company employed about 40 people in New Orleans and another 40 outside the region.
Turbosquid held the title of largest tech startup exit until September, when Levelset — a company created in 2012 by New Orleanian, lawyer and entrepreneur Scott Wolfe with the goal of revolutionizing how payments are made and received in the construction industry —announced that it was being purchased for roughly $500 million by California-based software company Procore.
In less than 10 years, the Lower Garden District headquartered company has grown to include nearly 300 employees worldwide (165 in NOLA) and has additional offices in Austin, Texas, and Cairo, Egypt. Wolfe noted in September that more than 250,000 users have deployed Levelset on more than 6.5 million construction projects.
In an interview with BizNewOrleans.com in late September, Wolfe spoke about the effect he hopes the sale will have in the region, both in the short and long term.
“This is a very innovation-driven, product-driven acquisition with a lot of appetite for continued growth for Levelset,” he said. “New Orleans is the heartbeat of Levelset … We’ll have another publicly traded company with a very large office in New Orleans that has room to grow. And it’s a lot of money that’s being spread across the New Orleans angel community, so I’m excited about the halo effect this should have on the New Orleans ecosystem.”
Boosting the ecosystem even further, just over a month later, marketing technology company Lucid snagged the grand prize when it sold to Swedish company Cint for more than $1 billion in cash and stock. The deal made Lucid the area’s first “unicorn.”
Founded at the New Orleans co-working space Launch Pad in 2010 by Patrick Comer, Lucid makes software that “helps organizations access survey takers who contribute authentic responses to their studies, providing valuable data for their insights.” The company, which has been growing year after year, said it has more than 130 employees in New Orleans and a total of approximately 550 employees globally, including offices in London; Delhi, India; the Middle East; and Africa.
“The Lucid exit is the capstone on over a decade of effort within our startup community,” Michael Hecht of GNO, Inc., told Biz New Orleans in October. “Patrick and his team have been all home-town drive, creativity and class, and it is wonderful to see the payoff. Combined with the recent success of Levelset, and many other recent exits and recent rounds, the Lucid exit is a ‘drop the mic’ moment for our entrepreneurial ecosystem. It means validation, it means wealth creation, and it means the fly-wheel of entrepreneurial success is beginning to spin for Greater New Orleans.”— KS
2. While the Hospitality Industry Struggles, New Orleans Sees a Boom in New Hotel Offerings
When the tourism industry does return to New Orleans in full force, visitors will have more options to lay their heads in between adventures thanks to a flurry of big hotel openings over the past year, the most noted of which was the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences New Orleans’ official launch on July 21, 2021, following a $450 million renovation of the 1968 building that began in 2018.
Occupying the former headquarters of the World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street, the first Four Seasons property in New Orleans also represents many other firsts, including the city’s first five-star hotel and first hotel-serviced residential building. Sales of the 92 residences also made headlines, including when one of the penthouses sold for a reported $13 million to Donald T. “Boysie” Bollinger, former CEO of Bollinger Shipyards. Former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Saints coach Sean Payton also made news when they purchased residences.
Inside the 33-story building —plus 34th floor observation deck and rooftop pool — there are 341 guest rooms and suites, 29,000 square feet of event space, spa facilities and four chef-driven food and drink options, including restaurants operated by two well-known local chefs, Donald Link (Chemin a la Mer) and Alon Shaya (Miss River).
In addition to the Four Seasons, this past summer featured three additional big hotel openings. Kimpton Hotel Fontenot officially opened on March 13, 2020, but then closed very shortly after due to the pandemic. The 202-room boutique hotel opened again May 11, 2021, at 501 Tchoupitoulas Street, which most recently housed a Staybridge Suites. The hotel’s opening marked the Kimpton brand’s return to the city following a 16-year absence.
The result of a $22.5 million renovation of a building that once housed the St. Vincent Infant Asylum on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District, the St. Vincent Hotel opened June 22 boasting 75 guest rooms, two restaurants, a swimming pool, outdoor verandas, several bars and an event center. The project is a joint venture between Austin-based hospitality veterans Larry McGuire, Tom Moorman and Liz Lambert, along with locals Zach Kupperman and Jayson Seidman.
On Aug. 18, Virgin Hotels New Orleans officially added a new hotel option in the Warehouse District at 550 Baronne St. The hotel features 238 guest rooms and two penthouses — one of which, “Richard’s Penthouse Flat” — named for Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group — features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown New Orleans. The hotel also includes multiple dining and drinking outlets, including Commons Club, Dreamboat, the Pool Club and Funny Library Coffee Shop.
As of late October, yet another hotel project still lay on the horizon for 2021, The Frenchmen Hotel, the first project of a partnership between New Orleans-based hospitality group Angevin & Co. — founded by restaurateur and entrepreneur Robert Thompson — and Massachusetts-based hotel company Lark Hotels. The Frenchmen is currently undergoing renovations to all 27 guest rooms and public areas, including its two bars and outdoor pool deck. When the property reopens later this year, the hotel will debut redesigned interiors and a new bar program.— KS
3. Record Film Business
Hollywood South is officially back and running at full steam. New Orleans is once again a hotbed for filming: just in the first three quarters of 2021, the industry brought $753 million into the city. At the time Hurricane Ida hit, New Orleans was hosting a record number of film productions and holding the title of fourth-largest production hub in the country, behind Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta.
Speaking on an episode of the BizTalks podcast on June 8, Second Line vice president Trey Burvant spoke about the effect the pandemic had in boosting film production.
“COVID created a lot of demand for content,” he said “… and now there’s a huge tidal wave of work coming to be made because they’ve got to fill those gaps. … It’s going to be one of the best times for this industry in the state and in New Orleans. … My phone is ringing off the hook. There are so many shows being greenlit right now. And there’s actually not enough soundstage space in the world to accommodate all of the production that is trying to go to camera.”
After pausing a bit following Ida, filming quickly resumed in the city, and on the Oct. 5 episode of BizTalks Carroll Morton, director of Film New Orleans — which, among other things, handles all the permitting for films in New Orleans — said the city currently had 16 film and TV projects filming and is capable of crewing up to 18 major projects at a time.
“New Orleans has one of the most well-respected, deepest crews in the United States…[We] can crew up to 95% of a project, so 95% of the people who are on the streets and are producing all of this are local people. They live here,”
she said, explaining that the city is continuously growing its studio infrastructure, and its reputation as a production hub, not just a city attractive for filming, has been growing.
“[People in the industry] know when they make phone calls here,” she said, “be it to our film office, be it to the local industry here, that we are able to help them very quickly to bring them here.” — KS
04. Real Estate Standing on Shaky Ground
Over the past year, the only certain thing about real estate in the greater New Orleans area has been uncertainty. With a few category exceptions, commercial real estate was severely disrupted by the pandemic. Post-Ida, even the robust residential market faced potential negative impactors.
On the residential side, the market broke records in 2021, especially at the higher end. Average prices were up 13% over the previous year, running as much as $400 per square foot in many New Orleans neighborhoods. With many people working from home, buyers sought larger spaces, while pandemic-related uncertainties reduced the number of sellers. Meanwhile, supply chain issues increased construction costs for new dwellings and renovations, a problem made far worse by Hurricane Ida-inflicted damage. Throughout the year, residential was unquestionably a seller’s market, which not surprisingly exacerbated long-standing affordable housing issues.
Toward year-end a few potential negative factors emerged. Mortgage rates began to creep up slightly and are forecast to continue rising. Less certain but potentially more impactful, Ida revealed deep infrastructure issues (although the levees did hold), as well as caused many permanent business closures. Together, this could cause more homes to go on the market, while correspondingly reducing demand.
Many factors combined to impact commercial real estate, negatively in most cases. E-commerce, which was already putting pressure on brick-and-mortar retail, doubled during the pandemic. Staffing and supply chain issues, COVID-19 fears and finally Ida caused many stores and restaurants to close; vacancy rates for retail properties were nearing 20% by year-end.
Vacancy rates for office space also rose, less dramatically, though long-term leases may be artificially slowing the pace. Many businesses continued to offer work-from-home options throughout the year, either full or part time, a transformation that most observers believe is permanent. Reduced demand also drove down office rental rates, while the absence of workers in downtown areas had ripple effects on nearby businesses.
Tourism-related properties, particularly hotels, faced serious challenges, especially after the summer COVID-19 surge. Room occupancy rates were below 50%, and another key metric, revenue per room, fell by more than half. Whether business travel and hotel stays will ever fully rebound is questionable, as many companies embraced video conferencing. Despite this, multiple new hotels opened in New Orleans, generating at least some optimism for this sector.
Bright spots included industrial properties, especially warehousing, manufacturing and logistics centers, which benefit from the e-commerce boom. Multi-family housing also did well, fueled in part by rising rents and prices in the residential market.
As vaccination rates and employment data both go up, there is hope in the real estate sector — particularly commercial — that thewild ride of 2021 will yield to somewhat smoother sailing in the year ahead. — KT
05. Caesars Entertainment Bets Big on New Orleans
Caesars Entertainment is going all in on New Orleans.
In late 2020, the company announced the rebranding of the Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal Street to Caesars New Orleans, accompanied by an estimated $325 million in renovations. The project, estimated to be completed by 2024, centers around construction of a new 340-room hotel. Other aspects include new food and hospitality attractions, development of the vacant area on the second floor of the current building, and substantial modifications throughout the interior and exterior of the property.
Two recent announcements further expand on the details of the project. First, portions of the hotel and the featured new restaurant will carry the Nobu brand, first launched in New York in 1994 by actor Robert De Niro, celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa and businessman Meir Teper. The restaurant’s cuisine is a fusion blending Peruvian ingredients with Japanese recipes, while the hotel — which will apparently not encompass the entirety of the new tower — will feature luxury rooms and high-end amenities.
The second announced aspect of the redevelopment is the inclusion of a live performance theater, in partnership with theater company Spiegelworld. The company’s performances are generally adult-oriented, and include acrobatics, comedy, music and vaudeville. New Orleans will be one of three Caesars properties, along with Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to feature Spiegelworld productions.
With a lease in place for the Canal Street property through 2054, Caesars Entertainment is clearly treating the New Orleans location as a top priority. The current investment is anticipated to create 600 jobs during construction, and lead to another 500 permanent positions after the renovation is completed.
In July, Caesars doubled down on the city, announcing a 20-year agreement for exclusive naming rights to the Superdome. Along with Saints home games and other staples such as the Bayou Classic and the Essence Festival, the Superdome will be hosting the NCAA Final Four in 2022 and the Super Bowl in 2025, ensuring that the Caesars brand will experience high visibility early in the agreement.
While there are currently some issues around state support for the Superdome, these will most likely be resolved successfully, given the overall economic impacts of the building. Combined with the casino renovations, Caesars Entertainment is establishing possibly the highest profile of any corporate entity in New Orleans. Placing this big a bet on the future of local tourism, and the city in general, is a welcome vote of confidence as the region’s economy attempts to recover from the ravages of the pandemic. —KT
06. Entergy Battles City Council
Entergy New Orleans’ infrastructure was the first to crumble in the wake of Hurricane Ida followed by its relationship with its regulator, the New Orleans City Council.
Following the storm that left parts of the city without electricity for days after part of Entergy’s power transmission system fell into the Mississippi River, the council’s Utility Committee passed a resolution to study the future ownership of the electric and gas operations in the city of New Orleans, including municipalization, or a city-owned and managed utility.
“We need to do everything in our authority to reform our power delivery system, build clean resiliency into everything we do, and hold Entergy accountable to limit the damage to our community from future storms,” Council President Helena Moreno said in a press release.
Entergy New Orleans responded with four options to move forward:
1. A merger with Entergy Louisiana to establish one company for all Louisiana customers. This could lead to lower rates in the city and spread the risk of storm costs across a larger customer base. It would be regulated by the Louisiana Public Service Commission.
2. A sale or merger of Entergy New Orleans with another public utility or private entity. The City Council would retain regulatory authority.
3. Establish a standalone company without Entergy Corporation’s ownership. The City Council would retain regulatory authority, but physical and financial risks are plenty.
4. Municipalization of Entergy’s assets by the City of New Orleans, with direct management of the electric and gas systems. This could result in higher financing costs and additional operational expenses.
Entergy New Orleans currently provides power to 207,000 electric customers and 108,000 gas customers in the city of New Orleans, representing $633.8 million or approximately 6% of Entergy Corporation’s total operating revenues, for the fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2020. The subsidiary owns more than 1,800 miles of electric distribution lines, 144 miles of transmission lines and approximately 640 megawatts of power generation. The company also owns 36 miles of natural gas transmission lines and more than 1,700 miles of natural gas distribution lines.
“It is obvious that we have reached a critical juncture in our relationship with the City Council,” said Rod West, utility group president of Entergy Corporation. “While we believe that the actions of Entergy New Orleans have always been in the best interest of our New Orleans customers, some members of the council have publicly expressed a different opinion.
“The council’s expected resolution will require it to make an important choice: Will the city continue with Entergy as its energy partner or pursue another alternative?” — CP
07. Global Video Game Development Studio Opens in New Orleans
In 2021, New Orleans was home to several major tech “exits,” which is the industry term describing the acquisition of a startup by a bigger company, but there was also one notable entrance as well.
In October, video game industry veteran Jeff Strain officially announced that he was relocating from the West Coast and opening his new video game development studio, Possibility Space, in New Orleans. An icon in the industry, Strain is the founder of Undead Labs, which makes the State of Decay video game series, and co-founder of ArenaNet, makers of the Guild Wars online role-playing game.
Regional economic development officials, who lobbied Strain to come to New Orleans (and offered incentives), said Possibility Space will become the latest addition to an “interactive entertainment cluster” in the city that includes inXile, a Microsoft Xbox Game Studio; High Voltage Software, part of Keywords Studios; Testronic; and Turbosquid. Electronic Arts, meanwhile, has offices in Baton Rouge.
Strain and his economic development partners estimate the new venture will create 75 new permanent jobs in Louisiana with an average annual salary of $100,000.
“The arrival of Possibility Space further secures our standing as a leader in interactive entertainment development, which continues to offer high-paying tech jobs for Louisiana residents,” said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards when the news was announced. “With an industry innovator such as Jeff Strain at the helm, this project could be a game-changer for video game development in Louisiana.”
For his part, Strain said he’s long been looking for an opportunity to settle in New Orleans, a city he’s visited frequently ever since his wife attended Loyola University New Orleans.
“After two decades of building successful video game studios, I’m delighted to be starting my next company at home in Louisiana,” he said. “We’re building relationships with our customers and want to give them the best experience possible. We’re building relationships with our team members, and want to give them an environment that’s productive, safe and healthy. … This great state has a joy and a strength to it that makes it the perfect place to both raise my family and build my business. I’m appreciative for the vision of the state Legislature and the governor as they work together to support emerging tech businesses like mine.” — RC
08. Six Flags Redevelopment May at Last Take Flight
A rare loss for Drew Brees could translate into a big win for the city of New Orleans. Brees and several other partners lost out when the city chose a competing firm to redevelop the Six Flags site in New Orleans East.
The decaying former amusement park, severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina, had become emblematic of the city’s struggles to create high-level economic development, particularly in the East. The city took over the troubled 227-acre property in 2009; since then, RFQs were issued and withdrawn, proposals were submitted and rejected, and endless debates over the future of the site were the norm.
The most recent iteration of the process began in December 2020, when yet another RFQ was issued. Six proposals were submitted in response. Three, including the Brees-affiliated group (which also included current Saints linebacker Demario Davis), were invited to follow up with more detailed plans.
While the Brees partnership scored highest initially, it ran into headwinds from a longstanding issue relating to the site: conflicts between the preferences of area residents and the city’s goal of maximizing the economic impact of the redevelopment.
On the other hand, a competing group led by local entrepreneur Troy Henry, and including the Louisiana-based construction company TKTMJ and Dallas developer Hillwood, conducted extensive community outreach, both to inform their proposal and build support for it. This approach paid off when the group, operating under the aegis of Bayou Phoenix, was selected in November to take on the project. Community support was one factor cited by the city when the decision was announced.
Additional pluses for Bayou Phoenix were its strong financial position and its commitment to including Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) in the work. The proposal sets a goal of 40% DBE participation.
The winning proposal includes both residential and entertainment uses. While there are positives and negatives to the location, one plus is access to major shipping routes — I-10, rail and the Mississippi River — and the plan includes warehousing and business logistics components. On the entertainment side, a sports complex and a water park are contemplated. A hotel and travel center are also in the plans.
The final piece is locating a community STEM facility on the site, in collaboration with STEM NOLA founder Dr. Calvin Mackie.
Along with the Six Flags site, the proposal includes redevelopment of the nearby Eastover Country Club and Residences.
The former Six Flags has long been an albatross around New Orleans’ neck, but if Bayou Phoenix can deliver on its proposal, this will transform into a true story of resurrection. — KT
09. Consolidations Continue in Health Care
The two largest health care providers in the Greater New Orleans region continued the recent trend of growth through mergers and consolidations.
In June, Ochsner Health announced a merger with Meridian, Mississippi-based Rush Health Systems to become final in mid-2022 pending regulatory approval. Ochsner currently has 40 owned, managed and affiliated hospitals and specialty hospitals in Louisiana and Mississippi, plus more than 100 health and urgent care centers. Rush, which will be known as Ochsner Rush Health after the merger, owns six hospitals in east Mississippi and one in west Alabama, along with more than 30 clinics. The two systems have had a strategic partnership since 2019.
“We have tremendous respect for Rush Health Systems and the work they have done to advance care in Mississippi. The announcement today is a natural progression of our existing partnership with Rush,” said Warner Thomas, Ochsner’s president and CEO. The merger is expected to expand access to specialty and sub-specialty services on the Gulf Coast, including cardiovascular surgery, specialized stroke care, and cancer treatment.
“We are excited to join Ochsner Health and work with them to continue to improve quality and decrease costs while enhancing access to highly specialized care closer to home,” said Rush President and CEO Larkin Kennedy.
In October, LCMC Health finalized its acquisition of East Jefferson General Hospital after 95% of Jefferson Parish voters were in favor of the proposition in the August election.
The agreement calls for LCMC Health to buy the hospital for $90 million and invest $100 million over the next five years.
“East Jefferson General Hospital becoming part of the LCMC Health family ensures the residents of Jefferson Parish will continue to receive high quality health care,” LCMC Health CEO Greg Feirn said in a press release. “Receiving the overwhelming approval of the voters was a testament to East Jefferson’s commitment to the well-being of our community and we look forward to all we accomplish together in the years to come.”
EJGH joins LCMC Health’s five other hospitals, which include Children’s Hospital New Orleans, New Orleans East Hospital, Touro, University Medical Center New Orleans and West Jefferson Medical Center.
“East Jefferson General Hospital will continue to bring an unmatched level of health care to the residents of Jefferson Parish, now with the support of a large, locally-operated hospital system,” said Gerald Parton, EJGH president and CEO in an issued news release. “This partnership ensures the continuation of our legacy and the retention of thousands of jobs for some of the finest healthcare workers in the region.”— CP
10. The Hits Just Kept Coming in Hospitality
Since the pandemic hit in March of 2020, many industries have been hit hard by mandatory shutdowns and supply chain issues, but among the hardest hit was the hospitality industry, including the restaurant industry — New Orleans’ largest employer.
Among the casualties of the pandemic so far have been bars and restaurants including: Liuzza’s Restaurant and Bar, Li’l Dizzy’s Café, Meauxbar, Gasa Gasa, Circle Bar, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, DTB, Cake Café and Bakery, Morton’s the Steakhouse on Canal Street, two Robert LeBlanc-owned ventures — Cavan and Longway Tavern — Korea House, Trolley Stop Café, Avery’s on Tulane and Upperline.
This past summer, however, business had begun to rebound a bit as restrictions lessened due to lower COVID-19 numbers. As cases rose, though, Mayor LaToya Cantrell instituted a vaccine mandate for those dining in and working in restaurants.
In an article in the October 2021 issue of Biz New Orleans, Tony Saltaformaggio, general manager of one of Felix’s Restaurant Group’s two New Orleans locations, said that after being forced to close the French Quarter restaurant for over six months early in the pandemic, 2021 sales were looking really good.
“We were actually doing 30% over our 2019 sales,” he said. “Employees and guests were returning. But then the vaccine mandates hit, and everything just stopped dead. Suddenly, we had zero guests coming in the door.”
Saltaformaggio said the company quickly moved to offer a $200 bonus — $100 for each shot — to encourage staff to get vaccinated, and it worked for 75 of the restaurant’s 104 employees. Business, however, he said, didn’t pick up for the next week and a half, and then Hurricane Ida hit, and the restaurant was forced to shut down again, this time for a week and four days before opening to limited hours.
The arrival of a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 29 was yet another blow to the already hobbled industry. Speaking to Biz New Orleans in October, Stan Harris, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), said closures were continuing.
“I talked to a guy yesterday who told me he’s been forced to close one of his restaurants permanently and just heard from another person on the Northshore that they have to do the same thing,” he said. “For every big restaurant in this state there are 20 small ones that employ maybe 15 people or less and they just don’t have the capacity to adapt as quick to all these changes.”
Moving forward, the hospitality industry continues to battle workforce issues and supply chain challenges, while holding out hope that tourism and festivals will return, and that the worst of the pandemic remains behind us. — KS