A few years ago, a representative of Providence Community Housing was selling houses next to a woman selling incense in the parking lot of the now-defunct Robert Fresh Market on South Broad Street. Broad Community Connections (BCC), a local nonprofit, invited entrepreneurs to sell wares at the monthly flea market, and Providence — a local nonprofit housing developer that has since built 276 rentals in the Lafitte neighborhood, was one of those booths — attempting to lure back residents after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures drove them out five years earlier.
A Whole Foods Market will open on that spot Feb. 4, 2014 (the company previously had announced a Dec. 15 target opening date). ReFresh, the commercial development helmed by BCC and the New York-based L+M Development Partners, will house the high-end grocer, as well as Liberty's Kitchen, Tulane's Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and First Line Schools. The complex at South Broad and Bienville streets also will include gardening and exercise space, near Providence's collection of new, New Orleans-style homes where a once-blighted housing project stood.
For years, the neighborhood's longtime Sojourner Truth Community Center has offered professional development courses for adults, after-school programs for kids and activities like bingo — along with neighborhood resources and a place where people in the community can get answers to questions.
With 40 percent of Lafitte residents back home, jobs in the area are a priority — and with a high-end grocer moving down the block, how many Lafitte residents will end up in green Whole Foods "team member" aprons is still unknown. Now Sojourner Truth is working to make sure locals are not left out of the process.
Whole Foods is poised to hire 125 employees in its Broad Street store, according to Kristina Bradford, a local spokesperson for Whole Foods. Bradford says about 70 percent of those jobs will be new Whole Foods employees. Thirty percent will be existing employees brought in from other stores.
Though Bradford says Whole Foods is interested in drawing employees from the neighborhood, the national chain has no quota to fill for New Orleans residents — Lafitte residents will be held to the same standards as applicants who hail from anywhere else.
Costco, which opened on South Carrollton Avenue last month, also had no binding agreement to hire people from the neighborhood. According to Tyler A. Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, "The city entered into an agreement with Costco whereby Costco agreed to use good faith efforts to reach the goal of having at least 50 percent of the permanent employees be New Orleans residents." Statistics from the mayor's office show that 65 percent of Costco employees on opening day were local residents.
Both Costco and Whole Foods generally pay higher wages than their competitors, making both chains attractive to developers — and workers. Costco offers an average annual salary of more than $35,000 (with benefits), while the starting salary for Whole Foods employees is $10 an hour.
Andreanecia Morris, the vice president of homeownership and community development for Providence, was the one who sat in the sun at the BCC flea market advertising houses for sale. Morris says 40 percent of Lafitte neighborhood adults are unemployed. Adults between the ages of 18 and 62 are the second-largest demographic in the neighborhood. The largest demographic is children, who make up 50 percent of the Lafitte population. Though children are Providence's first priority, adult employment is a close second.
"They're unemployed for a variety of reasons," Morris says. "That includes disabled folks, there are a number of those in there as well. Jobs have to be the next priority, to help the kids help their parents change their lives."
L+M has opened stores in developing communities before, though Jake Pine, an L+M development associate, is careful not to compare ReFresh with other projects. "This is a unique project," he says. "ReFresh, the site and the model, has nothing to do with Whole Foods. It's a model for healthy lifestyles."
Earlier this year, Whole Foods opened in a still-developing part of Detroit, and the company says that store is doing better than it anticipated. It has another store planned for Chicago's Englewood neighborhood on the city's South Side.
In response to an interview request, BCC Executive Director Jeff Schwartz wrote back via email that Whole Foods "is actively working to hire as many local residents as possible, especially from the neighborhoods adjacent to the site, such as Treme, Faubourg Lafitte and Lower Mid-City. They have been actively collaborating with the Sojourner Truth Community Center, adjacent to Faubourg Lafitte, and are hosting a number of job and vendor fairs at Sojourner Truth over the next few months. They are also working with the City of New Orleans and the Black Men of Labor, both of whom operate programs to get neighborhood residents job-ready to work at the new store."
From the start, Providence has needed BCC, and BCC has needed Providence. Jobs, Morris says, are just the next phase of the relationship. Providence wanted to max out its site with homes for displaced residents, which left the housing developer with few options for commercial enterprises.
But, Morris says, building post-Katrina couldn't just be about housing. The only option was to reach out to other developers to build a more cohesive neighborhood with both commercial and residential properties.
"We said, 'Let's see if people are interested in getting together and talking about what's going on and sharing information,'" Morris says. "And we can offer information to everyone about what we're planning to do. We are planning on making this investment of 1,500 homes and apartments in the neighborhood."
"To sacrifice ReFresh for Lafitte?" Morris asks. "Nope. And vice versa. And it was never a choice because it never would have come to that. Because we need each other."
Even before Whole Foods came into the picture, the Sojourner Truth Community Center, which reopened after Katrina in 2009, was preparing Lafitte residents to enter the workforce. Morris says the center has made partnerships with area businesses that are hiring, and then helped residents take advantage of those opportunities. In addition to ReFresh, opportunities continue to present themselves at the Carver Theater on Orleans Avenue, which is set to open this winter; in the BioDistrict; and at Liberty's Kitchen, to name a few.
"It's a redevelopment period," Morris says. "One of the things we do is offer a '21st century' job readiness course, because we want to get some of our folks who are not quite at step one to step one," she says.
In addition to setting up residents with email addresses and teaching them basic workplace skills, Sojourner Truth also connects residents with GED classes at Delgado Community College and makes referrals.
"You need some semblance of how to conduct yourself on a job site," Morris says, "because while they're happy to mold raw clay, they need you to understand that you need to get there on time."
ReFresh will be the neighborhood's biggest employment opportunity yet, and Sojourner Truth timed its 21st Century class to coincide with the application deadline for Whole Foods. "21st Century is being geared toward the Whole Foods operation," Morris says. "They'll be done by the hiring date. That's in October. We made sure the timing worked out."
Ernest Roy, Whole Foods' general manager and "team leader" at the Broad Street location, has attended tenants' meetings to spread the word about employment, and Whole Foods has advertised in the community center's monthly newsletter.
"They've been all over this," Morris says.
Bradford says Whole Foods chose Sojourner Truth because of its location. "We would love for the immediate community to be a part of (the new people coming into the store)," she says. There is no educational requirement for a job at Whole Foods, even managerial level positions. (Of the 409 adults in Lafitte, 213 have either a GED or a high school diploma.)
"Whole Foods does a lot of training," Bradford says. "Once you get hired into the company, there's a lot of training that goes on as part of your initial orientation, and they continue to train you throughout your career."
The store will host an official job fair Oct. 11 at Sojourner Truth, and Roy, along with other current employees of the company, will assist Lafitte residents in filling out their online applications.
As for whether residents are interested in the jobs that Whole Foods offers, Bradford is optimistic. "People have asked a lot of questions," she says. "People are really happy to hear about the process and so we just keep on meeting with different groups and educating them and letting them know about it."
Glenn Hayes, a resident of Lafitte for 42 years, says he's confident the store will help the neighborhood. "I think people will apply," Hayes says, though he doesn't know anyone planning to do so.
"There's been a lot of interest," Morris says. "It's one of those things where you get 30 people who want to do it and then 10 people show up. That always happens. And that means we have to go at it again."
Though there is no written commitment that Whole Foods will hire Lafitte residents, Morris has faith in the promise of ReFresh and BCC, which she says have been committed to the Lafitte project from the start.
Meanwhile, "we're very concerned about prices," Morris says. Lafitte residents have a difficult time shopping for groceries in their underserved neighborhood, and a company often nicknamed "Whole Paycheck" may seem an odd choice to fill the void in a still-developing neighborhood that doesn't have a traditional supermarket. The store will accept governmental assistance cards and will offer its in-house 365 brand, which is cheaper than most of the brand-name products the store carries.
The ReFresh Project was planned before Whole Foods became involved. "We got who we got," Morris says. "But Whole Foods is very committed to mitigating that as much as possible, without corrupting their underlying quality — because there's a reason you go to Whole Foods. We don't want to lose that and we don't want our residents not to have access to it."