Melissa Ehlinger leads the charge at the New Orleans Business Alliance.
The New Orleans Business Alliance, created by Mayor Mitch Landrieu four years ago, is the city’s official economic development office. “We’re the voice of business in New Orleans,” says Melissa Ehlinger, NOBA’s interim president and CEO. “We see ourselves as facilitators who bring diverse business interests together, so we can grow jobs and wealth in our city.”
A predecessor organization was previously part of City Hall, but the business community pushed for it to become more independent. NOBA, which indeed has moved out of City Hall to a CBD skyscraper, is public/private partnership that has emerged as a more powerful advocate and energetic actor for the business community.
“We’re part of a system that goes all the way up to the state level,” Ehlinger explains. “We focus on Orleans Parish, while GNO, Inc., covers the larger New Orleans region and Louisiana Economic Development is for all of Louisiana. I often work with my counterparts in the other economic development offices, especially when working to attract new businesses. Our clusters are all aligned.”
By “clusters,” Ehlinger is referring to five economic areas that have been identified as having high potential for growth, including Creative Digital Media and Bio-Innovation & Health Services. NOBA creates local councils for these clusters and coordinates meetings. Although cluster council members may be direct competitors, they often share the same obstacles. For example, many in the Transportation, Trade & Logistics cluster are working to find a solution to a poorly timed stoplight on Tchoupitoulas Street that hampers port traffic.
NOBA’s initiatives fall under three general areas: corporate attraction, business retention and expansion, and retail development. “In retail, we’re losing $1.9 billion to surrounding parishes,” Ehlinger says. “If you live in New Orleans and you want to buy a couch, unless you’re looking for an antique, you most likely will go to Jefferson Parish. We’re looking to bring in new national retailers, while, at the same time, retaining the character of the local retailing landscape that makes New Orleans so special.”
The organization was involved in bringing Costco to New Orleans, helping to negotiate some infrastructure improvements and a tax-sharing agreement. Since it opened in 2013, Costco has exceeded sales expectations.
“It’s a completely different ball game than just four years ago,” Ehlinger says. “People who wouldn’t return phone calls are now calling us. Retailing is a small world in a way. The word has gotten out about how much New Orleans is under-retailed.”
Regarding NOBA’s business-retention activities, a fast-growing startup called Renaissance RX was outgrowing its space at the New Orleans BioInnovation Center on Canal Street. NOBA helped it scout out new locations in the city and secure tax incentives from LED. The Alliance also works to connect New Orleans businesses with local suppliers for goods and services, and facilitates the recruiting of employees through local colleges like Delgado Community College and the University of New Orleans.
NOBA’s overarching plan for the city has been codified in a document called ProsperityNOLA. Released in 2013, ProsperityNOLA sets economic development goals to be reached by the city’s tricentennial in 2018 and delineates paths to get there.
“We’re the thought leaders,” Ehlinger says. “We created a playbook that everyone is starting to follow. For example, we have created guidelines on how to analyze a project to see if the city should invest in it. New Orleans had never had that before.”
Ehlinger led the implementation of ProsperityNOLA, and, now as interim president and CEO of NOBA, she serves as the public face of the organization. She’s involved in pitching the city to companies interested in setting up shop here; she makes media appearances, serves on conference panels and promotes the city to national audiences.
Ehlinger can be considered one of the native young professionals who was drawn back to the city. As a sixth generation New Orleanian, she grew up in the Garden District — but she left to start her professional life. She was a political science major at the University of Texas at Austin and earned a law degree from The George Washington University in D.C. Her law career kept her on the East Coast, in Washington and New York, but she was becoming disenchanted when Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc. It wasn’t long before she enrolled at UNO to get a master’s degree in urban planning.
“I joked to myself that I was just going to test it out here, but, after the first couple of months, I was hooked,” she says, also remarking on how much the city’s optimistic outlook had improved. “The business community had been trying to create something like the New Orleans Business Alliance for some time, but it never happened. After the storm, people realized how much could be accomplished if they worked together.”