With Wal-Mart retail marks return to N.O. East

As he left the boarded-up and battened-down New Orleans East store on the Saturday before Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart greeter Byron Mercier expected to return in just a few days.

“I remember the manager and the co-manager locking the last door right before the storm. I said, ‘I’ll see you back on Wednesday,’ ” Mercier recalled almost a decade later. “That Wednesday (has) finally arrived.”

After a nine-year absence, the world’s largest retailer reopened its doors Wednesday in New Orleans East, helping to fill a retail gap that has raised persistent quality-of-life complaints from residents, who often have to travel outside the city limits for groceries and other goods.

“This is an unbelievable symbol of our recovery and then our opportunity,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said during a grand-opening ceremony that drew hundreds of people and packed the store’s parking lot an hour before it was scheduled to open.

Mercier snipped the grand-opening ribbon and greeted patrons in customary fashion: “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”

Before Katrina, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart’s outpost in New Orleans East was at 6901 Bundy Road. It never reopened. But six years after the storm, the company purchased the former Lakeland Medical Center at the corner of I-10 and Bullard Avenue and announced plans to convert it into a new store. Construction began in April 2013.

Before purchasing the Bullard site, Wal-Mart had long promised to rebuild in New Orleans East, but did not immediately set a timeline for the development.

For years after Katrina, even as subdivision after tidy subdivision rebuilt itself, New Orleans East was left without much commercial development and just one major grocery store. The tide has started to change lately. CVS, Big Lots and Hibbett Sports have moved in.

LCMC Health will open the New Orleans East Hospital, the first full-service hospital in the area since Hurricane Katrina, later this month at the former site of Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital.

Still, the lack of a conveniently located retail grocer has been a quality-of-life complaint for residents of the East since the storm. Residents have had to drive miles outside their neighborhoods — as often as not, into neighboring parishes — to buy groceries.

Those circumstances made Wednesday’s opening seem a bit more important than a garden-variety ribbon-cutting.

In her invocation, Pastor Debra Morton called the reopening a “sign of hope, and a sign of energy and a sign of rebuilding.”

Shoppers who packed the parking lot before the store opened said they were relieved they’ll no longer have to travel to Chalmette or Slidell for basic necessities. New Orleans East resident Carline McDonald said the store’s opening nearly brought her to tears.

“I really wanted to cry because it’s so important to me,” she said. “I was getting tired of having to go spend my money in other cities when our city needs to be revitalized. How is it going to be revitalized when we’re spending our money in other cities?”

A 2013 study by the New Orleans Business Alliance found that New Orleans residents spend $1.9 billion a year on retail goods in other parishes, compared with $1.2 billion spent in Orleans Parish.

The Business Alliance, a public-private partnership with the city, has taken a special interest in boosting the local figure.

Wal-Mart is part of a string of big-box style retailers and chain stores that have either opened, announced plans to move in or are under construction in New Orleans. Another Wal-Mart store, for example, is under construction at the old Gentilly Woods Shopping Center site at Chef Menteur Highway and Press Drive in Gentilly. A $24 million shopping center that will include Ross Dress for Less, T.J. Maxx, Michaels, PetSmart, Shoe Carnival, ULTA Beauty and Raising Cane’s is under construction on South Claiborne Avenue. Costco made its entrance into New Orleans last year. And Whole Foods Market doubled its New Orleans footprint, expanding from one store to two, earlier this year.

Like residents, city officials are hopeful the Wal-Mart in New Orleans East will help generate sales tax revenue.

The opening of several new retailers late last year generated millions in tax revenue that city officials hadn’t counted on.

“It’s great to have a Wal-Mart come in and decide that they’re going to invest their money in our community. But we’re the ones who have to make it all work,” Councilman James Gray said. “We need to wake up every morning trying to decide, ‘How do I spend my money in my community?’ because that’s how the community grows.”

New Orleans East business leaders believe the store’s opening will convince other retailers the market is worth their investment.

“Any business that opens is a sign of hope and progress. Wal-Mart may be a catalyst for other businesses to come along,” said Alicia Plummer, vice president of the New Orleans East Business Association. “This is not the crème de la crème, but it’s definitely something to get us started.”

Plummer said the group has been meeting with other potential investors, though she declined to name them.

“There are some things not yet in the limelight that are going to come forward,” she said.

The store will provide more than 400 full-time and part-time jobs, 300 of them newly created. Some employees — including Mercier, who has worked at a Wal-Mart store in Harahan since the storm — are transferring from other locations. Twenty-five of the tore’s employees were working at the New Orleans East Wal-Mart when it closed nine years ago.

Overall, about 62 percent of the store’s employees are New Orleans East residents, a spokeswoman said. The 177,000-square-foot store, like the retail giant’s other Supercenters, sells groceries and general merchandise and includes a pharmacy.