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Banking on a Boom 

Small businesses lead the way in Lakeview's recovery.

Gieselman Dette has lived in Lakeview since 1950, but these days even she can get turned around during a drive through the flood-wracked neighborhood. "So many of our landmarks are gone, the businesses, the houses, even the trees," she says.

So when one of those local landmarks reopened -- the Rockery Ace Hardware store on Canal Boulevard -- Dette was overjoyed. The store returned to commerce in May and has seen a constant flow of customers from the contractors working on Lakeview properties. The store also gets frequent visits from Dette, who is 82 and stops in for light bulbs and other things she needs as she repairs her house in Lake Vista.

"It just shows so much heart when a place like this opens," she says. "You see Lakeview destroyed, you see the loss. So every time (a business) opens up, it's like someone gave you a million bucks.

"I could hug each one of these guys," she adds, gesturing to Rockery Ace proprietor David Letellier and his crew.

The newly rebuilt store is so clean and fresh-looking, it's as though it dropped out of the sky to its slot in an otherwise ravaged strip mall. Inside the store, the only evidence of the flood -- besides all the contractors -- is a large picture showing the nearby intersection of Canal and Robert E. Lee boulevards when the flood water stood at least 9 feet deep, a photo snapped by a police officer from a boat not long after the levee failure that laid Lakeview to waste. Once that water drained away, Letellier was convinced people would come back and eventually rebuild, so he knew if he could get his hardware store open, there would be enough customers to keep him in business.

"Someone had to open up, and we're not the only ones," Letellier says. Next door, in fact, the Rockery BP gas station recently reopened, making fuel available in Lakeview for the first time since August. Two adjacent businesses back in action constitutes a boom in Lakeview these days and stands in stark but encouraging contrast to the condition of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Residents who have returned to live in their Lakeview homes or in trailers are the exception to the rule on most blocks in this area. Front doors stand open on house after house after house -- windows gaping, interiors gutted or still laced by mosaics of mold. Weeds have grown to the height of small children in yards where small children once played. At night, a single car's headlights may be the only illumination for blocks.

But the shocking devastation that lingers in Lakeview is only part of the story. The other part -- the part that local entrepreneurs and corporate real estate managers are working on -- is happening in leasing offices, architects' studios and behind the plywood that covers windows of buildings now under renovation.

"We've never been busier," says Robert Lupo, CEO of Lupo Enterprises, which owns 150 commercial spaces in the Lakeview area, including approximately 80 percent of the commercial real estate on Harrison Avenue.

"I'd say 95 percent of our tenants are coming back. Where a few places aren't coming back, others are looking to expand," he says.

One tenant not returning is Coffee & Company coffee shop on Harrison Avenue. Lupo says two and a half hours after he released its owners from their lease, Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Co. had an agent in his office signing a new lease on the flood-damaged building. Starbucks is expected to open a coffee house at the site in September. Lupo says other regional and national companies are practically beating down his door for commercial space in the area.

"These are guys from outside, who aren't inundated with the horror we see around here every day," Lupo says. "What they're seeing is the potential. They're telling me 'This is where we want to be in the new New Orleans.' And that's because, outside of tourism and the French Quarter, this is where the business will be. We all know we want to be here because of our roots and our families, but when you get these outside guys who can't wait to be here, too, for the business, I think it shows you the future not only of Lakeview but the whole city."

Harrison Avenue has long been prime real estate for local banks, and Lupo says three regional banks are looking for property in the area to join the competition for the Lakeview dollar. Gulf Coast Bank on Harrison Avenue is already open, and Chase Bank is operating in a trailer a few blocks up the street. On the grocery front, Robert Fresh Market will reopen on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, Lupo says, and Lakeview Fine Foods will return to Harrison Avenue.

Still, even some of the most optimistic Lakeview boosters admit they are surprised by how long the rebuilding effort is taking.

"You never could have convinced me two weeks after the storm that at nine months out things would still look like this around here," says Lupo.

The toughest part of the rebuilding has been what he calls "getting traction" -- the process of securing insurance proceeds, having building plans drawn up and approved and getting contractors and the materials needed to start the work. Lupo also says many of his business tenants are using the rebuilding period as an opportunity to redesign their stores or offices, which takes more time than simply replacing what had been there.

"We're probably four months away from having 80 percent of our tenants back," he says.

A SURVEY OF 5,000 HOUSEHOLDS CON- ducted in April by the Lakeview Civic Association found that 84 percent plan to return to their homes. The unanswered question is when, but some business owners aren't waiting to find out. They are rebuilding and reopening -- or in some cases starting new businesses -- and thus far they say they are being rewarded with brisk business from their neighbors and people working in or visiting Lakeview. That's the case at Fleur de Lis Car Care, the service station at Harrison Avenue and Fleur de Lis Drive that reopened in May.

"Most of the customers are Lakeview people," says owner C. Ray Bergeron, the Houma native who introduces himself as "the other C. Ray" to distinguish himself from Mayor C. Ray Nagin. "They don't necessarily live in Lakeview now but they're coming because they know we're here and that's just a damn good feeling."

The 17th Street Canal is just a few blocks away from the service station, and when its levee failed, about 13 feet of water filled the streets and buildings here.

"We lost it all, no flood insurance," Bergeron says in the staccato style of someone who has recited that litany countless times. Six feet of water also flooded his Lakeview home on Marshall Foch Street, which he has since rebuilt.

"It takes a lot of determination, man. But this is what I do," says Bergeron, who has operated the service station since 1987. "Everybody has options. My options were to walk away or get the landlord to redo the building and come back. I chose the second option. This is what I do for a living. I do what I do."

Bergeron hasn't made a profit since reopening, but he is earning enough to pay his rent and his two employees, a headcount that is down from nine before the storm. His service station is surrounded by empty, badly flood-damaged stores, offices and homes, but he is confident more people will follow his example and return to the area.

"We're looking at devastation right across the street," Bergeron says. "You could walk right into a lot of these buildings, doors swinging. Now, you go across the street and look back at us and it looks pretty good around here."

New gas pumps won't be installed until the end of June, and so far Bergeron is only equipped to make minor vehicle repairs, but the service station is nonetheless bustling. Anywhere from two dozen to 40 people pull in each day to have this repaired or that checked out, to renew brake tags and to have tires repaired.

"We've quadrupled what we do with tire repairs," a testament to the hazards of nails and jagged debris in the streets, Bergeron says.

There were more than 30 businesses open in Lakeview in mid-June (the civic association lists them online at www.lakeviewcivic.org/comingback), and for residents living in the area or visiting to work on their properties, the open establishments have become islands of semi-normalcy.

"People were so happy to have a place to congregate," says Mike Keiffer, owner of Parlay's Dream Lounge, a bar on Harrison Avenue. "There are contractors coming through but there's also people living in trailers just looking for some company. You can't have five guys over to your trailer to watch the game."

Keiffer had no flood insurance for the business, but sold another bar he owned Uptown -- the Latin American Club -- and used the proceeds to finance a complete rebuild of Parlay's. It reopened in late May. He still worries about investing his money in an area that remains so badly damaged, but he remains hopeful about Lakeview's recovery.

"I don't know if it will always be the same people, but someone is coming back to this nice place," he says.

It wasn't easy to have that kind of optimism in December, when Oscar Sobrino could look out the windows of the restaurant he was building on Harrison Avenue and see no one for hours on end. But Sobrino pushed ahead with his plans and in late March opened Touche CafŽ in the spot that had been home to Charlie's Deli. Now he is too busy serving customers at his casual breakfast and lunch spot to spend much time looking out the window.

"I had an auto parts store in the Ninth Ward, but looters drove a city bus through it to rob the place after the storm. I knew I had to do something else," he says. "I knew if I opened a restaurant here I'd be busy, I knew there'd be a need."

He chose Lakeview in part because his wife Monique had operated two stores nearby -- the children's boutique Little Miss Muffin and the ladies' shoe store Shoe Envy. Little Miss Muffin reopened on Metairie Road in November to take part in the holiday shopping season, but the Sobrinos plan to reopen both her previous businesses as a combined store on Harrison Avenue later this year.

"We're committed to this area," he says.

IT WAS THE COMMITMENT OF OTHERS that convinced John Paisant to reopen his Pontchartrain Point Cafe, formerly the West End Cafe near the lake that he took over in 2004. The seafood restaurant was damaged by about 2 feet of floodwater. Paisant was mulling his options when, in November, he decided to throw a party in the restaurant's parking lot, grilling hot dogs and other food for neighbors visiting the area and disaster-relief workers.

"People were crying, hugging each other," he says. "They came up to me and said how nice it was, how it was the most normal thing they've done in the neighborhood since the storm. That's what made me think maybe I should just open and see what happens. It's a New Orleans phenomenon, I think. People are born in the area, raised in the area and committed to the area, and thank God they're coming back."

The restaurant is running with fewer than half the employees it had before the storm, but Paisant is slowly expanding hours. He expects a tough summer season, but he has adopted a positive outlook.

"I was trained for hospitality management, but now everything is so much more grassroots," he says. "I'm in the kitchen every day now. I'm looking at every plate that goes out. Quality is better, food costs are better. The only way I'm going to make money is by working my ass off and being committed to it."

click to enlarge When Oscar Sobrino was renovating the building that now - holds Touch Cafe on Harrison Avenue, he felt alone on the - street. Now customers keep his workday busy. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • When Oscar Sobrino was renovating the building that now holds Touch Cafe on Harrison Avenue, he felt alone on the street. Now customers keep his workday busy.
click to enlarge C. Ray Bergeron repairs a tire at his Fleur de Lis Car Care, - which he opened in May to repair cars and tires. He hopes - to have gas pumps filled in the next week or so. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • C. Ray Bergeron repairs a tire at his Fleur de Lis Car Care, which he opened in May to repair cars and tires. He hopes to have gas pumps filled in the next week or so.
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