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Eastern New Orleans shopping center welcomed as sign of comeback

Dozens of people worked out on long lines of treadmills, elliptical machines and weight machines in Planet Fitness on Crowder Boulevard in eastern New Orleans on Monday (April 13) as another crowd gathered by the front door.

Local leaders and developers were welcoming with pomp the 30,000-square-foot recently renovated and opened Crowder Retail Center. In an area of the city still lagging behind in recovering from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, even a decade later, the new line of storefronts carried an underlying hopeful message.

The $500,000 renovated center, which had been vacant since Katrina, also houses a MetroPCS mobile store and a Pizza Hut. The shopping center's owner, Paul Dorsey, said several tenants are interested in the 8,000 square feet of vacant space remaining.

Gary Sinopoli, a Biloxi physician who owns the Planet Fitness with partners Miachel Hurring and Robert Sirgusa, said the gym signed 4,000 members in two months and envisions reaching 10,000.

"The residents of this community, they want to get fit and be healthy," Sinopoli said. "They just didn't have the facility to do that in. This was a huge untapped market."

Among the list of other eastern New Orleans additions: Wal-Mart's return to the area on Bullard Avenue after a nine-year absence, and FilmWorks studio opening in a former distribution center warehouse.

Still, many lots remain undeveloped.

Councilman James Gray, who represents the area, said when he talks to residents, the most common request he hears is for more restaurants. Gray said he also sees room for a movie theater, more high quality retail and more activities for children from the commercial sector, beyond New Orleans Recreation Department programs.

But all of that comes down to growing the population and creating a tax base, he said.

"We have a footprint that can easily support many more people than we have right now," Gray said. "We'll never fix the potholes or keep the lights burning unless we have more people here spending money."

Eugene Green, who grew up in Academy Park subdivision and has invested in eastern New Orleans through his company Nationwide Real Estate, said it will take time to fill all of the vacancies, but investment in the area "has never been better than it is now."

"This shopping center and the many other developments taking place right now are worthy of our business community and our investment community taking a long-term look at where their investments can bring them the greatest return," Green said.

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