For decades, it was enough for the west bank of Jefferson Parish to simply be an attractive option for residents and businesses looking to leave New Orleans for the lower crime rate, cheaper land and better schools that generally characterized the American suburban experience.
Today, though, West Jefferson — whose population peaked in 2000 — is struggling to keep jobs and residents in the face of a rejuvenated Crescent City.
Its population is aging. Its property values are eroding with a housing stock out-of-favor with young professionals. Its economy is now dominated by lower-paying, service-industry jobs.
These are among the initial findings of Westbank Revival, a nearly yearlong study commissioned by the Jefferson Parish Council. While they paint a distressing portrait, the findings are now being used by consultant GCR Inc. to create a strategy to turn things around.
“These are all things we can choose to ignore and paint a pretty picture about what is happening, or we can work to change the trends,” said Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, who represents the west bank.
GCR Inc. used real estate, voter registration and U.S. Census Bureau data, along with an online survey and a telephone poll of current and former West Jefferson residents, to come up with its baseline results, which it is now presenting to industry and civic groups, elected officials and business leaders.
Its strategic recommendations are expected in about two months.
“This isn’t somebody’s idea of what the problem is,” Roberts said. “This is the assessment drawn from the people who are living it day to day.”
Westbank Revival has found that 40 percent of the West Jefferson residents who resettled elsewhere in the metro area in the last five years moved into Orleans Parish, with 24 percent moving to East Jefferson, 13 percent to the north shore and 6 percent to Belle Chasse and Chalmette together.
The report found West Jefferson has 188,956 residents, 5 percent fewer than it did at its 2000 peak, and is losing the coveted 25-to-34-year-old demographic.
The Westbank Revival surveys found that both younger respondents and baby boomers favor smaller, urban-style residential development, and 72 percent of West Jefferson’s housing stock is single-family detached homes, compared with 59 percent for the metro area as a whole.
Also, much of West Jefferson’s housing stock is old, but not old enough to compete with the early 20th-century homes being snapped up in New Orleans. In West Jefferson, 65 percent of the homes were built between 1960 and 1989, compared with 49 percent for the entire metro area.
Scott Brannon, an agent with Latter & Blum, said that while there is real estate activity in West Jefferson, “It’s not the same kind of people I’m showing around the city, in the Warehouse District. It’s not the young professionals.”
While the report says housing in West Jefferson is affordable, the market there has seen a 23 percent drop in the price per square foot since 2008, and houses stay on the market 10 days longer than the metro area average. Blight, the report says, is still prevalent.
In GCR’s telephone survey, 86 percent said having a central gathering place in their neighborhood is important, and 68 percent of respondents wanted to be able to walk to shops and restaurants from their home. The latter number climbed to 72 percent and 73 percent for young people ages 18 to 34 and baby boomers, respectively.
Brannon agreed that much of the development on the west bank is out of step with current trends.
“There’s a lot of value everywhere, but it’s not, ‘I can walk out of the condo and walk down the street to the cafe,’ ” he said. “You’re going to drive, versus the more urban (lifestyle of) get on your bike or walk.”
On a positive note, the survey found that people under 45 have less of a bias against West Jefferson as a place to live, with 90 percent saying they would consider moving there, compared with 76 percent of people over 45 and 68 percent of people over 65.
The report notes that West Jefferson is diverse: 47 percent white, 41 percent African-American, the metro area’s second-largest share of Hispanics and the largest population of Vietnamese.
The report’s findings on why people visit West Jefferson suggest that capitalizing on its ethnic diversity and authentic cultural offerings could make it more desirable as a place to live and visit. The survey found that while work and family account for two-thirds of nonresidents’ visits to West Jefferson, food — restaurants, markets or grocery stores — came in third at 14 percent.
The report noted that some of West Jefferson’s offerings in this category — establishments that respondents couldn’t find anywhere else —– were popular write-in amenities: the sprawling Hong Kong Market, the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Tau Bay and the Westwego Seafood Market.
“Everybody’s a foodie now,” Brannon said, noting his three children in their late 20s and early 30s are no different. “Everybody is chasing restaurants.”
Few bright spots
On the economy, though, Westbank Revival noted only a few bright spots against a backdrop of decline.
West Jefferson fared considerably better than the metro area as a whole when it comes to median household income, falling just 7 percent compared with 13 percent for the area.
The median West Jefferson household had $46,123 of income in 2011, $3,304 less than it did in 1999, while the median household income in the metro area was $47,400, down by $6,820 from 1999.
West Jefferson lost more than 10,000 jobs between 2003 and 2011, finishing the period down 14 percent, to 61,846 jobs. That number was even down slightly from where it was right after Hurricane Katrina. The drop since 2003 was slightly worse than the 13 percent decline in jobs for the metro area as a whole.
The report notes a striking change in the West Jefferson economy between 2003 and 2011, a period that has seen a dramatic decline in shipbuilding employment at Avondale Shipyards.
Manufacturing jobs plunged 40 percent, from 12,306 to 7,410, dropping from the top sector to second, pushing retail to the No. 1 spot, with 9,632 jobs, even though that sector fell by 14 percent during the same period. While retail is the largest employer in number of jobs, the sector tends to pay less.
Keys to revival?
Jefferson Chamber President Todd Murphy said the newly widened Huey P. Long Bridge, along with the developable, flood-protected land to which it provides access, could be the key to reviving the West Jefferson economy.
He said leaders need to leverage assets like TPC Louisiana, Nola Motorsports, Boomtown Casino and the Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy.
“We need to figure out what else we need to do to drive the infrastructure and support the expansion of business there,” Murphy said.
He said West Jefferson would be wise to market its lower taxes and cost of living, along with its proximity to the central city.
He and Brannon said people are often unaware of the cultural and culinary options hidden on the west bank, and Murphy said natural resources like Bayou Segnette often are overlooked by people living in the city.
Murphy said Gretna is a good example to emulate because of the way it uses its downtown area for events like a farmers market and festivals and the way it has protected its stable of older houses available for young families to buy and renovate just blocks from the river.
“As we’ve seen in the Warehouse District and certainly in Mid-City, it just takes a handful of people to start moving things,” he said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.