After a week-long visit to Hurricane Katrina-battered New Orleans in November, a group of more than 50 Urban Land Institute members, of which I was one, offered suggestions on how best to nurse the city back to economic and cultural health.

One recommendation was for cooperation between the public and private sectors, especially in the small business arena, which includes New Orleans' eclectic retail shops and restaurants. These were among the hardest-hit, and least-capitalized, businesses. They face monumental challenges to recovery (See story on page 36).

For the near term, small businesses should receive financial aid as quickly as possible, because many do not have sufficient cash reserves for necessary working capital or rebuilding efforts. The panelists also advised limiting collateral requirements, given the uncertainty over how long it will take for the customer base to return. Another critical need: Preparation of a list — to be posted on city and state Web sites — of loan and grant programs as well as tax incentives. And, panel members agreed, business owners should have access to a business “advocate” who will identify resources and ensure owners' needs are met.

TIFs for tats

Longer-term initiatives should include creation of an organization to foster company formation, providing entrepreneurs with the technical support to develop strong business plans, connect them to sources of capital and offer mentoring services.

Moreover, incentives must be provided to encourage development of neighborhood retail and services, which is vital to rebirth and also to providing entry-level jobs for residents. To drive retail development in underserved neighborhoods, tax incentives such as tax increment financing must be provided. Capital incentives, such as lowering equity requirements for developers, or providing grant funding to reduce construction costs and allowing more affordable rents, will also have to be part of the assistance package.

Another important focus: The rebuilding process. Top priority should be given to local, small and minority businesses for rebuilding work and the creation of job-linked training and workforce development. Longer-range plans should endeavor to diversify the economy. The panelists suggested building on various segments of the city's economy, starting with its rich music and dining industries, its port and its cruise business, healthcare and higher educational sectors, and expanding into other areas, such as bioscience and retirement housing. Such diversification is necessary to create a greater number of higher paying jobs than existed in the city before Hurricane Katrina.

Wooing wealthy retirees

As a starting point, the city should put together a program to back its musicians. Attention will help revive the city's entertainment, dining and retail industries. Longer term, panelists noted, there is an opportunity to form an organization similar to the Public Works of Art Project created in the 1930s.

Long term, retirement housing would perhaps prove the most promising boost to retail. Baby Boomers tend to spend more as they age, due to their overall greater affluence. Since retail sales are comprised of the simple math of bodies times dollars, it is easy to see that retiring Boomers should be courted. Because retail sales and home ownership are extremely high among this segment, positioning New Orleans as a retirement hub could pay off.

With its walkable urban areas, water amenities, striking architecture, excellence cultural amenities, great food, excellent healthcare infrastructure (assuming that infrastructure is rebuilt), and a solid higher educational infrastructure, the city would make an ideal retirement mecca.

Executive vice president, policy and practice Urban Land Institute