The public benefit corporation does manage the open-air market, but it also is landlord to retailers and residents who occupy city-owned property from Jackson Square to the French Market as well as two parking lots with hundreds of spaces on Elysian Fields Avenue --within easy walking distance of French Quarter attractions -- and a third that stretches along the floodwall from Jackson Square to near Esplanade Avenue. The organization also has been a moving force behind cleaning up its part of the French Quarter, repairing and rejuvenating structures and making overall improvements to sidewalks, streets, fountains and more.
"I'd say it's the cleanest part of the Quarter," Stephen Hand, executive director of the French Market Corp., says of the blocks of streets, parks and buildings his organization manages. His 72-person staff is constantly cleaning, repairing and patrolling to keep the area safe and tidy. "Our day never really ends; we operate 24 hours a day," says Hand, who took over the helm of French Market Corp. eight years ago. "During the day, we're kind of like Disney World; we're right behind them (picking up trash)." Other team members spend their days reroofing old buildings, repairing slate sidewalks, giving a structure a fresh coat of paint, cleaning and repairing fountains and tending to landscaped areas.
The vision of the area is quite different than previous decades, when the management company couldn't meet its bills and drew operating funds from the city. Today, French Market Corp. not only is completing a backlog of repairs and maintenance projects as well as improvements, it is returning a profit to the city -- after 25 years of being unprofitable. Since 1996, French Market Corp. has paid dividends to the city totaling $6.6 million.
"The city used to subsidize the market, now we are giving the city $6.6 million and have done $5 million in improvements" over the past seven years, Hand says. "We just paid much more attention to the bottom line and how to get there. Public land should have a good return on it; we should make a profit." Profits from rents at the Upper Pontalba building are placed in a special fund, with $540,000 dedicated to upgrading the malls, benches, trashcans and other items at Jackson Square.
The French Market itself has about 327 vendors and nine permanent farmer tenants who provide the fruits and vegetables that were the entire reason for the public market when it started in 1791. Fresh produce has largely given way to less perishable edibles, gifts, New Orleans memorabilia and souvenirs, jewelry, handbags, clothing, art, crafts, and other typical flea market merchandise.
"We're doing our best to keep fresh fruit and vegetables here, but people don't shop that way anymore," says Hand, adding that the number of produce vendors increases significantly during pumpkin season in the fall, when Louisiana strawberries are being harvested and during Creole tomato season (the next couple of weeks). "We're always available on a daily basis for farmers. We're the oldest continuously operating city market in the United States, and we try to keep the things that we relate to that history."
In addition to fresh coats of paint and repairing sidewalks, French Market Corporation also was instrumental in moving the historical Washington artillery cannon that once sat unceremoniously outside Cafe Du Monde onto a raised platform with marble and informational plaques at Artillery Park, which overlooks the renovated Moonwalk along the river. The corporation also cleaned up the steps leading to the monument, opened three public (and constantly maintained and secured) bathrooms, and an information station, landscaped the park around the Joan of Arc statue and added lots of lighting and constantly monitored security cameras throughout the area.
"Most of the things we've spent money on are things that don't really show: fixing roofs, repairing termite damage, constantly replacing slate tiles in the walkways," Hand says. "Now we're caught up with the backlog of maintenance and repairs." He plans improvements not only on Jackson Square, but also with adding art, making a more permanent stage for the frequent concerts the group presents and adding a children's mural to the area.
The area of the Quarter administered by French Market Corp. operates like a small city of its own. It has its own security staff but pays the New Orleans Police Department about $212,000 a year for consultations and supervision by officers to maintain order without taxing public services. The corporation also owns its own garbage truck, which picks up tenants' trash daily, and a maintenance crew.
The businesses who rent from French Market, including five restaurants anchored by the popular upscale Bella Luna, have responded well to the changes and the overall upgraded appearance of one of the city's most visited areas. "Our tenants feel we're doing the right thing," Hand says. "They want things to be well-maintained. They want people to think of the French Market as a clean, modern, fun, safe place to come. Of all the sectors in the (NOPD's) Eighth District, we're the lowest on crime. Overall, it's just a nice place to be."