New Orleans — Standing inside the gutted Circle Food Store on Monday, Randy Hamilton remembered the glory days of the 7th Ward business and envisioned an even brighter future for the neighborhood landmark.
A former grocery manager at the Circle, Hamilton was one of dozens of neighbors and one-time employees who filed into the building to celebrate its restoration and imminent reopening.
Officials formally kicked off an $8 million renovation project that will see the structure rehabilitated and returned to commerce as a full-service grocery, something that the area has been without since Hurricane Katrina flooded the property more than seven years ago.
Owner Dwayne Boudreaux said some light work has already begun, and he expects heavy construction to begin in two weeks. He said he hopes to have the store reopened by late July. Officials expect its return will bring 75 new jobs to the area.
While the store took on 5 feet of water during the storm, Boudreaux said he has no doubt it would reopen because of its historic ties to the neighborhood.
“It’s like we drowned but still had a heartbeat,” he said.
While Boudreaux, who bought the store in 1991, was sure it would return, the funding was less certain. But after more than five years of frustration, everything came together in the form of grants, tax credits and loans.
The work will be financed through a $1 million loan from the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, with a forgivable amount of $500,000. The goal of that program is to provide neighborhoods with healthy food options.
In addition to that loan, the city provided a $100,000 economic development fund grant. First NBC gave Boudreaux a loan of $1.7 million, while the Louisiana Office of Community Development gave a $1 million loan, $2.2 million in historic tax credit equity and $2.2 million in new market tax credits.
To qualify for the tax credits, Circle Food Store was registered last year as a federal landmark. Though the interior will be modernized, the Circle’s exterior will retain its traditional look.
“This was an iconic place for so many of us. It was the hub of the 7th Ward,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “It will once again be the anchor of this community.”
The store opened in 1938, the first African-American-owned store in the city. It took its name from its location on the corner of St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues, which met at a traffic circle before the elevated expressway was built.
More than just a place to shop for food, the building also housed a doctor, a dentist, a pharmacy, check cashing, a bank, a chiropractor and sold school uniforms. Some who attended the ceremony remembered rabbits and baby chickens being sold during Easter.
Ernestine Rayford, a lifelong 7th Ward resident, said she’d waited for years for Monday’s announcement. She said she also looks forward to being able to do her shopping in her own neighborhood.
“It’s a blessing, I’ll tell you that. Since this closed I had to go Uptown, downtown, across the river,” to shop, Rayford said. “For this to come back, it brings a whole lot back to the community.”
Hamilton, the former manager, agreed. “It’s great for the community,” he said.