New Orleans jobs scarce

NEW ORLEANS - Two years after Hurricane Katrina, almost nothing seems the same in New Orleans, but one thing has not changed: a cool regard by business for what was once a major Southern commercial center.

The recovery is creeping along. As population increases, but employment growth slows, no one is certain where the jobs will come from to sustain the city's rebound.

It isn't that corporate America doesn't recognize New Orleans' plight. A new report by the Foundation Center, which tracks hurricane-recovery donations, shows 30 major companies poured more than $300 million into charity in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina.

But permanent new investment and jobs are scarce. Companies, it appears, are not convinced that New Orleans will be a safer, politically stable, attractive place in which to live and do business.

Mayor Ray Nagin, who has pleaded the city's case with Wall Street investors, acknowledges that crime and corruption have hurt the city's ability to attract significant new business.

So an odd dichotomy has taken shape. Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell P.L.C., which has cut New Orleans jobs in recent years, put its money into sponsoring the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Zurich Financial Services, which has no major employment here, is sponsoring the city's professional golf tour stop.

On the other hand, two major oil employers have moved or are preparing to leave. Mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. moved to Phoenix after its buyout of Phelps Dodge Corp. Chevron Corp. is moving 500 jobs from downtown 40 miles north to St. Tammany Parish.

Although city officials are happy that the tourism business is recovering, there have been no major additions to white-collar employment since Katrina. Even tourism employment is far below pre-storm levels.

Why do corporations hesitate to invest in a city that desperately needs long-term commitment? Some reasons, Nagin says, are rooted in pre-Katrina problems that worsened after the storm. Among them, a crime wave that has New Orleans on track to lead the nation in per-capita murders for a second year, a shortage of housing, corruption scandals, and skyrocketing insurance costs.

"New Orleans has a long row to hoe," said venture capitalist Gary Solomon, head of Crescent City Bank & Trust, of New Orleans. "We've got to get people's confidence that we're going to do it right. I don't see that."

According to state Labor Department figures, the metro New Orleans area had 113,300 fewer nonfarm jobs in June 2007 than in June 2005, two months before the hurricane struck on Aug. 29, 2005.

The biggest drops were in government jobs, down 29,000, and the tourism sector, down 24,500 jobs. The big gainer, not surprisingly, was construction, up 2,500 jobs.

Even more disturbing is the sudden slowdown in the job-recovery rate.

From November 2005 to June 2006, the area added 7,400 jobs a month. That slowed by December 2006 to 2,000 monthly. In June 2007, the gain was only 300.

"The suggestion in the data is clear," demographer Elliott Stonecipher said. "We apparently are at a place where the post-storm employment recovery is peaking. It may have peaked."