Ten New Orleans mayoral candidates offered differing plans Thursday on how to grow the local economy and reduce the racial inequities that have divided the city for generations. But they largely agreed that the next administration should do more to promote black-owned businesses and remove bureaucratic hurdles that complicate entrepreneurship.
"We are over 300 years behind," said Michael Bagneris, a former Civil District Court judge, adding that diversification of jobs would aid economic development. "We came here in chains."
City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said she would ensure the city completes — and takes action upon — a disparity study intended to determine whether there is a level playing field for women and minorities competing for city contracts. The results of the analysis are expected to help city leaders improve their efforts to aid those businesses, and Cantrell said the study also should be used "to link our city with greater federal dollars."
"We know that we definitely have a disparity that exists in the city of New Orleans," Cantrell said. "But nothing stops a bullet like a job."
The candidates touted their business credentials at a forum hosted by the South Broad Business Coalition, a group of small business owners. The primary is Oct. 14.
The questions covered a wide range of economic issues, highlighting the challenges the next mayor faces in attracting new businesses and creating jobs for the city's youth.
Troy Henry, a businessman who ran unsuccessfully against Mitch Landrieu in 2010, took a swipe at the mayor, challenging the crowd gathered at the Rhodes Pavilion to name a single black-owned business that has thrived during Landrieu's two terms. "They've been shut out of every single project since this mayor has taken office," he said.
Henry also touted the potential of New Orleans East, which he described as the "most neglected portion of our city," and he vowed to attract major retailers like Ikea and to redevelop the site of the former Six Flags theme park.
"We need to start looking at how New Orleans East can become a jewel of the city," he said. "It's where the landmass is."
Tommie Vassel said his business acumen has been sharpened by decades of work as a certified public accountant. He pledged that, if elected, he will not penalize or retaliate against business owners who are supporting his opponents.
"I'm not going to be the type of mayor who says because you signed up with somebody else, you can't eat for the next eight years," said Vassel, taking aim at the incumbent. "We've had too much of that. We've not progressed by being so divisive."
The forum also allowed voters to hear several of the lesser-known candidates for mayor, some of whom offered impassioned ideas for moving the city further.
Matthew Hill, an executive coach and entrepreneur, called for improving the city's "one-stop shop" for permits and for reducing the cost of business licenses. "It's not pleasant to do business with City Hall," he said.
Ed Bruski, a registered nurse, said the city needs to improve its infrastructure if it hopes to attract new business. "We need to work on ourself," he said. "There's roads here that you can't even drive on."
Former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, among the top candidates in the race in recent polls, did not attend.