Hidden Gem Coming to Light

When the tolls for the Crescent City Connection stopped in 2013, Gretna flourished — and things have only gotten better since.

From an influx of new restaurants and stores to a flurry of major public works projects, to a growing number of markets, festivals and other events, the city of Gretna is flourishing in a way that few area municipalities can match.

“With its proximity to the airport and the city of New Orleans, its walkability and quality of life, Gretna is uniquely suited for success,” observed Jerry Bologna, president and CEO of the Jefferson Economic Development Corporation (JEDCO). “And the business climate in Gretna is outstanding.”

“Gretna is small-town America,” stated Gretna’s mayor, Brenda Constant. “It’s a place where people feel included, accepted, part of a vibrant community.”

For the geographically challenged, Gretna is on the west bank of the Mississippi River, nestled between Algiers and Harvey, and backed up by Terrytown. At about 4 1/2 square miles, it is home to roughly 18,000 residents.

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Barket Factors:

As is true for so much of the greater New Orleans area, Hurricane Katrina had a huge impact on Gretna, although like most of the Westbank, the city did not sustain significant damage. Coincidentally, Constant had been sworn in as Gretna’s first female councilmember on July 1, 2005. She took office with several ideas on how to start revitalizing her district, which included the historic downtown area; one of those was creating a weekly farmer’s market.

“We planned to open the market in March 2006,” she recounted. “Instead, we started on October 17, 2005. We had 2,000 people come the first day.”

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Not only were New Orleans residents still struggling to find fresh food at that point, area vendors were desperate for venues to sell their products. The success of the farmer’s market led to acceleration of a planned arts market, which opened in December 2005, just in time for Christmas shopping.

Both markets are still thriving today, the farmer’s market every Saturday morning and the arts market on a monthly basis. Constant said these markets were so critical that they were responsible for the city’s transformation.

“People came who didn’t even know Gretna existed,” she said.

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However, this did not solve the issue of a complete absence of nighttime activity.

“You could roll a bowling ball from one end of Huey P. Long Avenue to the other after 4 p.m. and not hit anything,” recalled Betty Archote, co-owner of several Gretna restaurants, referring to the city’s main downtown artery.

“We needed an anchor at night,” Constant said, and she prevailed on Archote and her husband to open their first restaurant, Thanh Thanh, right across from Gretna City Hall.

“We knew that during the day, that area was a busy, happening place. We really fell in love with the neighborhood,” Archote recounted. “We knew we had to create a following, but we saw it as a diamond in the rough, so we took the chance.”

Constant encouraged her colleagues in city government to support some evening events, and the restaurant began building a dinner clientele. Success, of course, breeds success, and other dining and drinking establishments began to follow. The result, Archote reported, is that now nighttime is busier for the restaurant than daytime.

This soon spread out to other types of businesses.

“In the retail market, when businesses are successful, it sends a signal to other retailers that it is a desirable and profitable market,” noted JEDCO’s Bologna. The economic development organization has played its own important role in the recent growth, funding loans for Gretna businesses and helping them to access valuable tax incentives.

 

Gretna Hueypspizza Healthycoursemeals
Huey P’s Pizza and Healthy Course Meals

Barriers Coming Down:

While the mix of government actions and private investment was driving substantial resurgence in Gretna, the final major contributing factor occurred in 2013, when voters eliminated the tolls on the Crescent City Connection. This removed the final barrier to commerce and cross-river exploration.

2013 was also when Constant — who seems to have a very good sense of timing — was inaugurated as Gretna’s first female mayor.

“Once the tolls came off the bridge, business in Gretna exploded,” she recalled. “We saw a lot of people coming over from the Warehouse District, the Garden District. It’s easier to access Gretna from those areas than to go to Metairie.”

At the same time, external forces — particularly the effects of climate change — began to increase their impacts.

“We needed to address factors of sustainability and resiliency,” Constant said, “living with water and hurricanes and coastal erosion and subsidence. All those negatives are not just rhetoric.”

The solution was a new focus on formal planning processes.

“We completed our first comprehensive plan in 2018,” said Amelia Pellegrin, director of planning and city development for Gretna. “This was followed by overhauling our development code in 2019.”

The resulting Unified Development Code addresses everything from historic districts to stormwater management.

“It’s intended to streamline the development process, to put all the ordinances in one place,” Pellegrin explained. “And we are constantly updating it. For example, we just added a section governing charging stations for electric vehicles.”


DID YOU KNOW?
Gretna is currently home to a large Zatarain’s facility, along with Creative Film Connections, a major supplier of furniture and props to local movie and television productions, and a growing environmental services sector.


 

 

Money Well Spent:

One important aspect stressed by both Constant and Pellegrin was the role of community participation in the planning processes.

“Community participation is critical,” Constant stated. “People feel like they need to have a voice. So many things we do are volunteer-driven, like the markets and the Gretna Heritage Festival. You have to respect the people that make the city what it is.”

Thus far, the plans have produced outstanding results. One key project is the revitalization of Gretna City Park. Located on the far side of the expressway, away from the river, Pellegrin described the park as “an area that hasn’t seen that much investment for a while.” The updates range from 18 miles of walking trails to a kayak launch, a pavilion and a fishing pier.

Just as important, in an area surrounding a number of repetitive flood loss properties, the park’s new design enables the facility to store a lot more water during and after heavy rainfalls. Stormwater management was also a key focus during the renovation of the main square in front of City Hall; newly installed underground tanks can capture and hold 35 swimming pools’ worth of water. This emphasis on green infrastructure firmly establishes Gretna as the regional leader in this vitally important field.

Another investment Constant made soon after taking office has also paid off well. “I tripled our landscaping budget,” she recalled. “Just like if you go on a job interview, you want to look your best, if you want to sell your city, you need it to look good when people drive in.”

Subsequently, Gretna has won the state’s “Cleanest City” award in its size category for the last two years.

Of course, all these investments require funds, and Constant acknowledged that “we have a high millage base, but people feel they are getting their money’s worth. People engage with government, and people trust government in our city.”

“People feel like they are getting something in return for their taxes,” echoed Archote, the restaurant owner. “Gretna has always given that message, that the safety and well-being of its citizens is paramount.”

It doesn’t hurt that spending by the city has successfully induced the business community to follow suit.

“There is a lot more interest and investment from the private sector in downtown Gretna now,” said Pellegrin. “Half a dozen vacant properties are being reopened, and a lot of new projects are going through the permitting process right now.”

The redevelopment includes historic residential areas in the older part of the city as well as commercial properties. The result, said Pellegrin is that “property values are higher than they’ve ever been in Gretna.”

She also noted that “any built city only has so much property we can work with, so these new projects are infill development. This is leading to more opportunities for growth outside the core downtown area. We have several other stretches that are ripe for commercial and mixed-use development, a wealth of older properties that could use some love and affection.”

One example of this aspect is the recent opening of Toast, a popular New Orleans restaurant small chain that opened its fourth location, and first outside the city proper, in Gretna but away from downtown. Owner Cara Benson was not originally looking in the area, but she found a location that accommodated her need for a commissary to bake breads for all her locations as well as a restaurant site.

“It turned out to be great, everyone has been so nice and accommodating,” Benson said. “The price of the building was about one-third of what it would have cost in New Orleans, and we also got some tax incentives. I’m excited about it — I think Gretna is going to be great for us.”

 


DID YOU KNOW?
Gretna was the home of baseball great Mel Ott of the New York Giants (after whom another large city park is named) and legendary entertainer Frankie Ford, of “Sea Cruise” fame, among other notables.


The Last Frontier:

Looking ahead, both Constant and Pellegrin cited a better connection with the Mississippi River as priorities. Said Pellegrin, “The last frontier for Gretna is development along the river. There’s a whole lot more opportunity to draw on that as resources and amenities for residents and businesses.”

Constant is looking to upgrade the Gretna ferry terminal and attract river cruise lines to use it as their main point of embarkation. She would also like to restore the historic ferry service from New Orleans, and generally improve transit connecting the two sides of the river.

All involved see an even brighter future ahead.

“The city is perfectly positioned for continued growth,” said Bologna. “All the pieces of the puzzle are in place.”

“It just seems like it’s getting better and better,” concurred Archote. “I hear people say, ‘I would never live on the Westbank, but I would live here.’”

“I want this to be a place where people want to be, a city of choice,” echoed Constant. “I want people to see this as the best place in the world to live.”

 


DID YOU KNOW?
Gretna boasts the longest active volunteer fire company in the world — 175 years old and counting.


 

Gretna Fleurtygirl
Fleurty Girl
Gretna Computrols
Computrols
Gretna Amorebakery
Amore Bakery

Made in Mechanikham

A look at Gretna’s surprising roots

1836
A look at Gretna’s surprising roots

1838
The St. Mary’s Market Steam Ferry Company purchased land immediately downriver from the settlement. The streets of the new development were aligned with those of Mechanikham, and the community of Gretna was established – and that same street layout still exists today. Ferry service between the east and west banks was launched at about that time, creating a vital link between communities on either side of the river.

1884
Gretna becomes the seat of Jefferson Parish government, which still provides a reliable economic base that Mayor Constant noted was critical to the city’s survival after the oil bust of the 1980s. “People were invited by subpoena to see Gretna,” she pointed out. “They had to come here for jury duty and parish business. But it was a blessing and a curse, because everyone left at 4 p.m. on Friday.”

1913
McDonoghville became part of Gretna and the city was formally incorporated. Additional land was absorbed by the city as nearby plantations were subdivided, ultimately creating the boundaries that define the present-day municipality.

1958
The Mississippi River bridge opened and vastly improved access to and from New Orleans. This was followed by the extension of the Westbank Expressway, which further improved access but also cut Gretna in half and destroyed some of its residential areas.

 


 

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