Top 10 Stories of 2022

When the editorial team sat down this year (virtually, because we’re still living in a semi-post-pandemic world) to discuss our contenders for the top stories of the year, the first thing on everyone’s mind was the natural choice for No. 1: crime. Whether Mayor LaToya Cantrell chooses to “embrace it” or not, the fact is that New Orleans claimed the terrible title of “Murder Capital of the Country” this year thanks to achieving the highest rate of per capita homicides in the nation, and the highest New Orleans has seen in almost 30 years. Crime has risen in many metropolitan areas during the pandemic, but we are a standout, and we are all feeling the effects every day.

It’s not just that our streets have become deadlier, they’ve become scarier all around thanks to steep increases in carjackings and theft. Just in October, multiple small businesses on Freret Street were victims of break-ins and Starbucks closed its flagship store in New Orleans on Canal Street citing security concerns.

And while we were fortunate not to be hit by any hurricanes this year, both flood and homeowners’ insurance rates skyrocketed, greatly affecting affordability for existing and potential citizens. Instead of too much water, we face the opposite problem this year as the Mississippi River sits at historically low levels, impacting shipping and water quality.

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So that’s the bad news, but the good news is that a vast majority of our Top 10 Stories are ones of growth. Just a few include the announcement of multiple new endeavors in New Orleans East, the return of festivals, and the long-awaited reopening of Avondale Shipyard under a new identity: Avondale Global Gateway. In an exciting move toward further diversifying our economy, things are also moving forward with a $50 million partnership to create a clean hydrogen cluster in South Louisiana.

Yet again, we look back upon a year that brought great problems, but yet again we saw some big wins and a solid sense of optimism among businesses continues. That optimism is what will push us forward, what will energize us to tackle the issues that are to come and find the opportunity that lies within them.

By Keith Twitchell, Owen Racer, Rich Collins and Kim Singletary

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01 Crime Takes Over

An investigator walks past a handgun and an evidence marker at the crime scene of a shooting at Xavier University in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. A shooting killed an 80-year-old woman who had come to a university arena to see her grandson graduate from high school.

While there have been multiple big economic wins over the past year, one issue has dominated not only headlines both locally and nationally, but the thoughts of all that live in New Orleans this past year: crime.

Prior to the pandemic in 2019, New Orleans’s murder rate hit a 50-year low of 121 for the year. As of Oct. 2, that number was up to 220. The number of shootings in the city at that time had reached 534 and armed robberies were up to 417 for the year.

Headlines proclaiming New Orleans the “Murder Capital of the United States” have spread around the country and even internationally. Although other cities like St. Louis and Baltimore may have higher numbers of homicides, the murder rate is calculated based on population. As of September, the number of homicides per 100,000 New Orleanians was 52, substantially higher than cities like Chicago (18) and New York City (3.5). As of summer, the city’s murder rate was 141% what it was in 2019.

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Frustrated and concerned with the rise in violence, citizens and businesses gathered to take action in July with the launch of NOLA Coalition. The group announced its formation and plans at a July 12 press conference at the Youth Empowerment Project headquarters in Central City. At the time, the 200-member alliance proposed a two-part plan to “create a safer and more prosperous New Orleans for all residents” that includes urging city leaders to implement crime-fighting strategies and raise funds for a $15 million investment in social services. Funds raised by the coalition for youth services are being distributed through the United Way.

Now up to more than 400 members — including local nonprofits, civic organizations and businesses — the NOLA Coalition released a 60-day report on Sept. 12. In its summary, it reported the following wins:  “Mayor Cantrell has called for major support for NOPD. The City Council has taken a range of action, from funding for recruiting, to a revised technology ordinance, to raises for our officers. And the community has responded, with nearly $3.5 million donated for support of youth services, to be provided by community-based organizations from within the City’s Youth Master Plan.”

Although the report included multiple mentions of actions by Mayor LaToya Cantrell — including a three-year, $80 million plan to beef up the police force — efforts to recall Cantrell, began in August when former Democratic mayoral candidate Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste and one of Cantrell’s ex-staffers, Eileen Carter, filed a petition to recall the mayor. The group needs 20% of the city’s population, or 63,000 people to sign the petition by Feb. 22, 2023. If that happens, the city will hold a vote on recalling the mayor.

In addition to the city’s insufficient attempts to stem crime and support the New Orleans Police Department — whose numbers have fallen to under 1,000 officers, the lowest staffing level in decades — the group points to the disrepair of local streets and ongoing garbage collection problems as justification for the recall. — KS


02 Insurance Costs Drown Homeowners and the Housing Market

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For property owners across South Louisiana, 2022 brought a flood of bad news regarding insurance policies and payments.

Due to multiple hurricanes in the two previous years, more than 600,000 claims were made on property insurance policies. Payments to residential property owners alone totaled more than $11 billion.

Unsurprisingly, some smaller insurance companies were unable to absorb this kind of cash outlay. While all insurers are required to have reinsurance to protect themselves against unexpectedly high payouts, that was not enough to keep some companies solvent. Consequently, at least nine insurers underwriting properties in Louisiana failed completely over the course of 2022, and 11 others announced they would stop doing business in the state.

To protect property owners in this situation, Louisiana has its own property insurer, Louisiana Citizens. This highly regulated entity is required to charge at least 10% more than private companies and must have adequate reinsurance to protect state taxpayers from being on the hook for paying claims.

Faced with absorbing tens of thousands of additional policies, as well as soaring reinsurance costs, Louisiana Citizens announced that as of January 1, 2023, its rates would increase by 63%. For some homeowners who previously had private insurance, the cost of property insurance will come close to doubling.

The entire situation is so dire that Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state leaders, while on a trip to England, met with international insurance giant Lloyd’s of London to discuss ways to lower reinsurance costs, attract more private insurers to Louisiana and generally try to ease at least some of the burden.

Compounding the problem, the National Flood Insurance Program announced a major revision of its underwriting approach, in the face of being more than $20 million dollars in debt. This program only provides insurance for flooding, while regular property insurance protects against threats like wind and falling trees. Property owners in designated flood-prone areas are required to have both; for Southeast Louisiana, estimates are that the changes could cause flood insurance premiums to rise for some half-million homeowners.

How much? FEMA, which manages the program, has tried to downplay the potential for large increases. However, there have been estimates that upwards of half of Louisiana policy holders will see their rates more than double in the next 10 years.

Not only is this incredibly threatening for existing homeowners, one ripple effect has been to stifle housing sales, as the higher insurance rates create substantial increases in property costs.

Housing affordability has been an increasing issue in the region for several years, and substantial jumps in insurance costs that began in 2022 are making the problem much worse. — KT


03 LCMC Health Acquiring Tulane Med Center

On Oct. 10, LCMC Health announced plans to purchase Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, Tulane Lakeside Hospital in Metairie, Louisiana and Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Covington, Louisiana, for $150 million. They will join LCMC Health system’s current list of six hospitals.

The deal will mean the Greater New Orleans area will be served by only two major health care operators: LCMC and Ochsner Health System. The two organizations hope the agreement will be finalized late this year or early next year, pending regulatory and governance approvals with transition planning and activities to follow.

“Together with LCMC Health, we can combine our strengths to expand world-class academic medicine in the greater New Orleans area,” said Tulane University President Michael A. Fitts. “Academic medical centers provide the most complex and high-quality care and are the birthplace of new treatments and technologies. This partnership will help drive clinical, educational and economic innovation and growth that improves the quality of life across our entire region.”

The plan calls for the majority of services provided at Tulane Medical Center’s downtown hospital to move to East Jefferson General Hospital and University Medical Center New Orleans over the next two years. Tulane Medical Center will then eventually be home to a 200-student nursing program as part of a $600 million project directed toward revitalizing Tulane’s Downtown presence. That plan also includes renovating the Charity Hospital building, which closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. By 2025, it will serve as the new home of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Employees of both HCA and LCMC will be retained.

LCMC Health said it will make an initial capital investment of $220 million at East Jefferson General Hospital, Lakeview Regional Medical Center and Tulane Lakeside Hospital. The funds will help “maintain the standards of care and patient experience, invest in new equipment and facilities as well as ensure these facilities attract the best and brightest medical providers,” according to a spokesperson.

Not everyone is in favor of the deal, however. In late October, the largest union of registered nurses in the nation, National Nurses United, submitted a letter to Attorney General Jeff Landry, whose approval is needed for the acquisition to go through. The letter states that the resultant duopoly will lead to “further consolidation, higher health care prices and cuts to vital services.” — KS


04 The Party is Back: Festivals Return by the Hundreds Post-Pandemic

Music Jazz Fest New Orleans
New Orleanian Robert Gale, left, dances with Fredda Siedenbaum, of New York, as Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans on Friday, April 29, 2022.

Our local festivals bring out the best of everything New Orleans: great food, music, crafts, cultural displays and people. The two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic not only was damaging to the celebratory spirit of the region, it also caused substantial economic losses.

The festival scene roared back to life in 2022, celebrating everything from fried chicken to books, chamber music to tomatoes. A quick review of several festival calendars indicated that the Greater New Orleans region hosted upwards of 1,000 such events over the course of the year.

In terms of size and economic impact, no festival tops Jazz Fest. After its two-year hiatus — the first time it canceled in its 50-year history — nearly half a million music lovers flocked to the Fair Grounds for the seven-day event. Not only does the festival provide a paying gig for local musicians, it showcases them in front of new audiences from all over the world, creating new booking opportunities.

With an estimated $400 million impact, the return of Jazz Fest also meant filled hotel rooms, restaurants and clubs; orders for all the suppliers and vendors; work for all the setup and sound crews; and funds for the nonprofits that benefit from the Jazz and Heritage Foundation grants.

Some other re-emerging festivals turned up in new locations, like the Fried Chicken Festival. Its move to Lakeshore Drive made it the first Lakefront event of its size since pre-Katrina days.

Pent-up demand for festivities resulted in record participation at some events in 2022. While quantifying the crowd at French Quarter Festival is always a challenge, organizers announced attendance of more than 800,000. Hogs For The Cause raised a record $2.6 million for charity at its 2022 event, while Bayou Boogaloo — held on the banks of Bayou St. John — had to impose new safety measures to keep partygoers afloat.

Just in case there was a tiny gap somewhere in the festival calendar, several newcomers sprang up in 2022. One example was the New Orleans Book Festival, which made its pandemic-delayed debut at Tulane University. For tech heads, the Fresh Mint Fest brought technology to the streets of the French Quarter.

Gathering to celebrate everything our region has to offer, from Abita to zydeco, is part of the very fabric of Southeast Louisiana. Festivals are also major contributors to the regional economy, supporting chefs, musicians, technicians, crafts people, construction workers, and of course the tourism and hospitality industries. Seeing them return in full force is worthy of celebration. — KT


05 Big Plans for Hydrogen Cluster Start to Take Root

In early September, it was announced that the U.S. Economic Development Administration had awarded a $50 million federal grant to H2theFuture, a 25-organization partnership that plans to develop a new offshore wind-powered hydrogen energy industry cluster in South Louisiana.

The proposal – led by nonprofit business booster Greater New Orleans Inc. – was one of only 21 winners out of more than 500 entries in the EDA’s Build Back Better Challenge. GNO Inc. said the plan “creates a roadmap for decarbonizing Louisiana’s manufacturing sector while creating new energy jobs.”

As part of the $50 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the New Energy Center of the U.S. will be established at The Beach at University of New Orleans. A $10 million federal award from the Build Back Better Regional Challenge will be matched by $5 million in state funds. Known as NEXUS, the new center will serve as the physical and programmatic hub for a range of clean energy initiatives.

“This positions the University of New Orleans and The Beach at UNO to be catalysts in the burgeoning sector of renewable energy,” said UNO President John Nicklow in a press release. “This is a critical time for our region as we take our existing expertise and infrastructure and apply them to solving our long-term energy challenges. NEXUS will be at the center of what could be a transformational era of investment and technological advancement.”

Located on 30 acres adjacent to the University of New Orleans, The Beach at UNO is a research and technology park that houses more than 30 tenants from government, nonprofits and the private sector.

“The New Energy Center of the U.S. at UNO is the latest in a series of transformational projects in the New Orleans area and across Louisiana that are putting Louisiana at the forefront of the global energy transition,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards. “Louisiana is committed to diversifying our economy and leveraging our world-class higher education system to become leaders in the good-paying clean energy jobs of the future. H2theFuture should play a significant role in moving Louisiana toward our goal of net zero-carbon emissions by 2050.”

Green hydrogen is different from traditional “gray” hydrogen in that it is made from water, as opposed to natural gas. The hydrogen is extracted from water by an “electrolyzer,” which is powered by offshore wind-generated electricity. The result is a hydrogen molecule that is chemically identical to one made from gray hydrogen, but with zero-carbon footprint. This hydrogen is then used as a feedstock for the production of ammonia for fertilizer, refining oil and steel, and other processes. It can also be used for fuel. — RC


06 Investment Continues in New Orleans East

With 85,000 residents, New Orleans East is the most populated area of the city — yet it is also among the most economically underdeveloped sections of New Orleans. That may be changing at last, as 2022 saw a flurry of new investment and projects, along with implementation of a focused business growth strategy.

Investment sources ranged from local monies to foundation grants to international corporations; industries ranged from manufacturing to movies to technology. Among the highlights:

• Spanish conglomerate Calucem announced a $35 million cement manufacturing facility to be built along the Industrial Canal. Expected to open in early 2023, the project will generate 70 direct jobs and another 158 indirect jobs, according to the company, which cited the availability of transportation options, raw materials and a qualified workforce in selecting the location.

• Actor Anthony Mackie, perhaps better known as Captain America, is reportedly planning a 20-acre film studio. The New Orleans native and NOCCA graduate’s star power and industry connections would bring a positive spotlight to New Orleans East.

• Food lovers will be delighted to hear that the Dagostino Pasta Company will be returning from Baton Rouge to its New Orleans roots. Now owned by local food services leader L.H. Hayward & Company, the new facility will focus on providing pasta for wholesale and home delivery.

• Joining his brother Anthony, Dr. Calvin Mackie, founder and CEO of STEM NOLA, announced plans to establish an Innovation Center on Plaza Drive. The Ochsner-owned building has been shuttered since it sustained damage in Hurricane Katrina and was donated by the hospital giant to STEM NOLA. The build-out — supported by a $1.25 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation — will create labs, classrooms and meeting rooms. Programs will have a special focus on providing opportunities for underserved children of color and on STEM-based professional development for educators.

• International investment is also coming from Iriapak, an Italian packaging manufacturer. The company is building a $7 million packing film production plant in the New Orleans Regional Business Park that is expected to generate 25 direct jobs and 28 indirect jobs. Iriapak noted transit and labor access as attractions for locating in the region.

Underpinning all of this, in 2022 the New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA) implemented a targeted economic growth strategy for New Orleans East. The strategy has dual focuses of attracting new businesses and investment, while highlighting and promoting existing enterprises.

In its press release announcing the strategy, NOLABA described New Orleans East as “well-positioned for accelerated economic expansion.” Despite the continued delays in redeveloping the old Jazzland site, 2022 saw important initial steps toward realizing that optimistic vision. — KT


07 Avondale Shipyard Returns Under a New Name

The former Avondale Shipyard was officially rechristened Avondale Global Gateway on Oct. 7.

Since 2018, when T. Parker Host acquired the site — which includes 254 acres available for development on or near the shores of the Mississippi River and 1.5 million square feet of convertible warehouse or manufacturing space — the company has invested over $100 million in the redevelopment of the site and faced challenges including high water levels, the pandemic and Hurricane Ida, which caused about $15 million in damage. Up to $1 billion in capital investments is expected by the company and its tenants, according to a recent economic impact study released by Dr. Stephen Barnes, director of the Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center. 

According to Adam Anderson, CEO of T. Parker Host, Avondale Global Gateway is now a “working, world-class multi-modal terminal with fully operating docks, working buildings and rail access at the site for the first time in half a century.”

Opened in 1938 as Avondale Marine Ways, Inc. — a repair and barge construction company — the shipyard was once the largest employer in the state, employing approximately 26,000 people thanks to a long history of government contracts. The site had been shuttered for four years before the T. Parker Host purchase.

Avondale Global Gateway now offers access to regional and interstate highway systems, features four active berths, three ship-to-shore cranes, Foreign Trade Zone designation and is positioned at the interchange of six Class I railroads

Since cargo operations began again in 2020, more than a million tons of cargo have passed through the facility. The company stated it expects to employ 350 people on-site by the end of 2022.

“The next phase of our redevelopment is to bring on anchor tenants that add value to Avondale,” said Anderson. “Now that we are open and fully capable of handling cargo with our cranes, docks and transportation connections we are looking to the future and how we can add value to the region in the form of jobs and economic development.”— KS


08 Mississippi River Drops to Record Low Levels

Mississippi River Low Water
A Carrollton guage shows abnormally low water levels along the Mississippi River, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Stephen Smith

Long considered the cardiovascular system of the United States, the 2,300+ mile Mississippi River is no exception to climate-induced weather extremes, as it is enduring near-unprecedented low water levels and draining 32 states.

In early October 2022, the Mississippi River had reached its lowest point in a decade, resulting in local and global economic impacts, furthering pre-existing climate and food supply issues. Louisiana officials have called for more dredging to help with the low water levels.

“The cause of the lowering Mississippi is ‘completely a supply issue’ with its only true solution being rainfall in any form, specifically up north in the form of snowmelt,” said John Sabo, director of Tulane University’s ByWater Institute, the environmental research institute focused on coastlines and rivers of the United States.

More than half of the upper basin of the Mississippi River is experiencing a drought, which means less water is flowing down to the lower basin of the river, 90% of which is in a drought. The result has been barges slowed, delayed and forced to carry less cargo.

Although he doesn’t predict the state of the river will improve during the winter — an opinion shared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Sabo said this is not the new normal, but rather the new normal is the alternation between extreme weather.

“It wouldn’t be surprising to me to see a flood in the winter,” he said of the volatile Mississippi, regarding the summer’s floods in Yellowstone and Kentucky that aren’t out of the picture to repeat in the Mississippi.

Just under half (47%) of all grain is moved by barge, according to the USDA, and 60% of the nation’s foreign-bound corn and soybeans travel along the Mississippi, which is why food export is the No. 1 worry. The situation is exacerbating an already global problem with the food supply as a result of the war in Ukraine.

While Civil War relics are being uncovered as the Mississippi lowers, more serious impacts could reach into critical utilities producing safe drinking water for New Orleanians, an impact that has already been felt along other parts of the river. In mid-October, a dredging company began construction on an underwater levee just north of the Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse. The 1,500-food levee will hopefully block saltwater from reaching public and industrial water supply intakes in Plaquemines Parish and New Orleans. — OR


09 Nursing Program Options Expand to Fill Demand

Amidst a widely known global and local nursing shortage, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, New Orleans-based organizations have their hands extended to aid the industry and those it serves by filling the nursing demand.

Just in the past year:

  • Delgado Community College announced it would open its Ochsner Center for Nursing and Allied Health building in January 2023 near City Park.
  • In October, Loyola University unveiled its Loyola-Ochsner Nursing Simulation-lab and announced a new accelerated Bachelor of Science in nursing degree.
  • LSU Health New Orleans School of Nursing is set to expand in North Louisiana this January.
  • Dillard University’s College of Nursing announced it will offer a Master of Science in nursing beginning in fall 2023. It will be the university’s first-ever master’s degree program in 153 years of operation,

These efforts are all to address the existing nursing shortage and prevent further shortages. Predictions are that by 2025 the supply of registered nurses will reach 2.4 million, while demand will call for 2.8 million. The result will be a 10% to 20% nursing gap. 

“There has always been a nursing shortage and there always will be to an extent; the pandemic just greatly exacerbated the demand,” said Sylvia Hartmann, Ochsner’s director of nursing academics.

Although an aging nursing population and retirement is the No. 1 threat to the industry’s talent pipeline, the state of Louisiana denies nearly 1,000 qualified students every year from attending nursing school due to a lack of capacity. This is a main reason Ochsner is partnering to open the Loyola and Delgado nursing programs. To incentivize graduating nurses to remain in-state, Ochsner offers a scholarship program in which they cover the cost of tuition for students if they agree to remain in the state, and within the Ochsner system, post-graduation. Ochsner has invested $4.6 million in the scholarship program for 2023. — OR


10 Surprise Ruling Causes Chaos for New Orleans Short-Term Rentals

Since the surge in popularity of short-term rental platforms (Airbnb, VRBO), New Orleans city officials have struggled with how to regulate and tax the “gig economy” industry, and how to prevent the spread of whole-house rentals that threaten the quality of life in residential neighborhoods that are popular draws for out-of-town visitors.

The “shiny, happy” side of the platform is a homeowner renting out a spare room or apartment in his/her home to help cover rising housing and insurance costs. The dark side is something altogether different: investors buying up several houses in downtown neighborhoods and turning them into poorly supervised tourist party pads that drive up property costs and push full-time residents out of neighborhoods.

In an effort to get a handle on all this, the city created its first set of STR rules in 2016. Then, in 2019, as part of an overhaul, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that limited residential short-term rental licenses to homeowners renting out space in their primary residence. (Licensing and regulating STRs in commercially zoned buildings are wholly different.)

All’s well that ends well … until it doesn’t.

In August, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a surprise ruling that said the provision limiting STR licenses to homeowners with homestead exemptions unconstitutionally restricts interstate commerce.

Local officials believe the 5th Circuit’s decision renders New Orleans’ STR regulations in residential neighborhoods unenforceable, so they are going back to the drawing board to come up with a new set of rules. As part of the process, the City Council decided to halt all STR license applications and renewals until March 2023.

This means many homeowners who use the platform to make ends meet have been caught in the crossfire and are unsure if they’ll be able to keep renting out space in their home. In response, these people have been advocating for their cause at City Council meetings and in other public forums.

Residential permit holders must live on the properties they rent while commercial owners are able to group units in larger complexes to form hotel-like complexes, per a 5th Circuit law provision. Nearly 1,300 residential short-term rentals with valid permits will phase out without renewal if the moratorium maintains its yearlong track.

“Our mistake was assuming we weren’t the target,” said one short-term rental operator in a recent Facebook post. “That the big guys were. The guys with multiple properties. This makes me both angry and sad. Sad that a city who values its community leaders doesn’t value how they make ends meet.”

For now, STR operators big and small — and neighborhood advocates — await the council’s next move. – RC and OR

 

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