In the Wake of Katrina: Big Easy's Big Struggle To Get Back to Business

The obstacles are formidable for New Orleans merchants that were spared major water and wind damage and are trying to get back to work.

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Clearview and other suburban centers are posting record sales as they draw residents from now shuttered malls. The 750,000-square-foot Clearview, where Sears is also an anchor, is averaging low-double-digit sales increases in the weeks since it opened in mid-October.

Lakeside Mall, also in Metairie, opened Oct. 28 with only half of its 120 tenants doing business, but posted a 600 percent increase in sales compared with the same weekend a year ago.

"The retail stores that are open are booming, they are packed," said Ed Wilson, Lakeside's general manager.

The sounds of buzz saws and hammering behind the brown-papered storefront windows are clues to the eventual return of shops such as J. Crew and Banana Republic. "We need the majors back," said Jeffery Feil, ceo of the New York-based Feil Organization, which owns and operates the center.

Anchors Dillard's and J.C. Penney opened in mid-November. Among the throng at Lakeside Mall on opening day were Carl and Pam Hubbert, whose home in Metairie escaped damage. They strolled with their children Jonathan, 2, and Kaitlyn, 5, but were not shopping for any specific item.

"We're just searching for a sense of normalcy," Carl Hubbert said. "This is our first real outing in two months — and we just wanted to do what we used to do."

Esplanade Mall, a 900,000-square-foot center in Kenner, about 20 miles west of New Orleans, has posted double-digit sales increase since it opened in mid-October with Mervyn's and Dillard's anchoring its 130 tenants. Only Macy's is yet to open.

"We think the higher sales are due to a pent-up demand and a whole new group of customers who are either moving or temporarily settling here," said Anne Mialaret, marketing director.

In a city dependent on tourism and convention trade, hotel occupancy is also a recovery barometer. Of Marriott International's 12 New Orleans area properties, only three remain closed, including the Ritz-Carlton. About 13,000 to 14,000 hotel rooms are available. By Jan. 1, Steven Perry, executive director of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects that 20,000-22,000 hotel rooms to be available. And at Mardi Gras in late February, as many as 29,000 hotel rooms — or almost 90 percent of the inventory — will be usable.
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