New Orleans CityBusiness Magazine
June 30, 2010
By Jennifer Larino
In the months of rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina, Prisca Weems watched residents scoop up sustainable building materials with a vigor she hadn’t seen before the storm.
She was impressed by the city’s newfound environmental awareness but soon realized it was feeding a sustainable industry outside of Louisiana. So in 2006, she created EcoPark, an entity focused on growing sustainable businesses in New Orleans and localizing the green building goods and services in demand.
“We needed to fast track that industry,” Weems said. “It became a question of how to create something in three to five years that would normally take 15 years to create.”
Five years later, Weems and a team of local business leaders are solidifying plans for the Building Block, a Mid-City development project slated to open in 2012 as a hub for the region’s still-growing sustainable industry.
They face a similar question: How do you quickly grow an industry hub while the industry itself grows?
“It’s a chicken and egg syndrome. I say you need all of it to happen at once,” Weems said.
In June, local real estate services firm Green Coast Enterprises and EcoPark entered into contract to buy the abandoned Bohn Ford site off North Carrollton Avenue. They plan to convert the 120,000-square-foot building into office and retail space for environmentally conscious small businesses as well as a sustainability education center. A price was not disclosed for the sale expected to close this fall.
“Ultimately, the goal is to leverage the success of the Building Block to attract industry and manufacturers to New Orleans,” Weems said.
But with a sustainable movement still taking hold locally, it’s uncertain how easy it will be to get to that point.
Green Coast Enterprises President Will Bradshaw points to the Salvation Army’s EnviRenew green restoration program and the March opening of Second Line Stages, the nation’s first green independent movie studio developed by Susan Brennan, as testaments to an already-thriving sustainable industry.
Bradshaw said 13 companies, including his own, intend to occupy the Building Block and many others are interested.
“When we have physical site plans, it will amp up the interest to a new level,” he said.
The Building Block is developing alongside initiatives such as GreenN.O., a grassroots program geared at developing the region’s sustainable businesses and work force.
Greater New Orleans Inc. is the force behind the initiative, and president and CEO Michael Hecht sees a potential for growth similar to other upstart industries in the region.
“The green movement is very nascent,” Hecht said. “With digital media, you had the digital media tax credit. We had given a policy basis for the industry. We don’t really have that policy basis for the green movement yet.”
The environmental disaster unfolding around the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing oil leak will likely help make the movement more visible, Hecht said.
The Building Block’s future will require a balance of ideology and business strategy as well as a step outside traditional commercial development roles, said Adam Lane, chief operating officer of Ecotrust, a conservation organization in Portland, Ore.
In 2001, Ecotrust opened the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, a warehouse redeveloped into office, retail and restaurant space for sustainable businesses, with 80 percent of its 70,000-square-foot space occupied.
Lane said the organization was intent on leasing to occupants who shared their environmental mission, such as anchor tenant Patagonia, an outdoor clothing retailer that invests in environmental causes. That often meant knocking on the doors of companies that were not initially interested in the space
“We sought them out,” he said. “We went to them. It was very nontraditional.”
After nearly a decade, the Natural Capital Center is fully occupied. Visitors and locals alike peg it as the epicenter for the area’s established green movement.
“There is a big marketing component if you’re successful at creating this,” Lane said.
The Building Block’s vision appeals to people such as Steven Bingler, president of New Orleans-based Concordia, a leading architect for the Building Block that has expressed an interest in moving into the building.
More important than tax credits to the 26-year-old firm is a place to rub elbows with like-minded businesses and to be a part of a growing environmental movement, Bingler said.
“There have to be demonstration projects. I think this is a demonstration project. This is the kind of project that will create those kinds of tax credits. Somebody’s got to take the lead and someone has to be the innovator.”