Inside the Mind of Quentin Messer, leading the future of New Orleans
New Orleans’ Secrets for taking on COVID-19 and Bouncing Back — Yet Again.
From floods and hurricanes to oil spills and now COVID-19, New Orleans is no stranger to a crisis — it is a city that just keeps evolving. With the pandemic now hitting an already tenuous economy, Quentin Messer, President and CEO at New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA), talked to CityAge about resilience, fortitude, and New Orleans’ secrets for always coming back from the brink.
CA: New Orleans is no stranger to crisis. What’s COVID-19 done?
QM: Three of New Orleans’ four main historical sectors — tourism, hospitality, oil, and gas, and maritime — are all adversely impacted by pandemics and particularly COVID-19. And then the fourth sector, historically, has been agribusiness, but the previous three have really suffered.
While we’re very focused on getting people reattached to work in the moment, we’re also thinking about how to be transformative, how to make sure that our economy in the future is less adversely impacted by pandemics.
There’s a lot of work to do to reduce racial disparities and income and wealth creation and things of that nature. At the Business Alliance, we’re fortunate enough to start a gig economy workers relief fund that raised $990,000. Over $100,000 of that money came from New Orleanians who were maybe adversely affected, but were willing to help those who are even more adversely affected.
CA: You’re also contending with the effects of climate change. It almost feels Biblical. How is that impacting your economy?
QM: We’re affected by climate change, as is all of Louisiana, particularly coastal Louisiana. We lose a football field worth of land in Louisiana every 45 minutes. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to abate anytime soon.
So there are tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods and homes could be adversely impacted unless we get about the business of really addressing the consequences of climate change and do it in a way that’s respectful for the traditional legacy oil and gas industry. Climate change is real and is happening, so we have to make sure our economy is less vulnerable to pandemics and climate changes; things that are bound to occur in the future.
CA: You can’t just pop out for a beignet anymore? Or at least you have to think about how you do that in a pandemic.
QM: The pandemic attacks socialization and, for a city like New Orleans, that is really a big part of who we are economically, culturally and who we are in our own psyche. It is hanging out. It is hugging. It is embracing — even business people hug, embrace, shake hands — and this pandemic has attacked that. You are reduced to a lot more impersonal socialization, so it has attacked the way that we live.
CA: So how does this change the future of life in New Orleans?
QM: I think you’re going to probably see more sidewalk cafes and using streets at certain hours of the day, potentially providing more outdoor seating capacity. Now, we have to think about what that means for vehicle transportation and things of that nature. But I think that New Orleans, what we’re known for, a world class culture that is unlike anything else, that won’t ever change.
CA: Will we ever see Mardi Gras again?
QM: Oh yeah. Mardi Gras is more about a celebration of the spirit of togetherness, it’s a multi generational expression of something that bonds families. There’s a spiritual component, a social component, a cultural component, an economic component. And I think that we are very committed to making sure that all of those components come together in a way that’s safe and thoughtful for people. If people have to wear a mask, people will wear a mask. And if people say, “Hey, look, maybe we can’t toss out as many throws, but we’re going to do something different,” I think people will adapt to that. We will always figure out a way to celebrate. And I think we are discovering that we won’t lose that joie de vivre, that laissez les bon temps rouler that makes us who we are.
CA: How are New Orleanians safely letting those good times roll?
QM: I’ve lived in a lot of places. I’ve lived in New York. I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve lived in Philly. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve lived in Akron, in Dayton, Ohio. A lot of great places, a lot of great cities, but the socialization experience here is intense.
New Orleans has an opportunity to show people how you can do that wearing masks, hand-washing, without losing that richness of their socialization, the richness of that sort of fact that in New Orleans people will buy you a drink or, in this case, we’ll give you an extra mask if you need one or give you an extra bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s just who we are.
CA: Now that social interaction has changed drastically, what other resources does New Orleans have to propel the city forward?
QM: I think that the greatest civilizations, the greatest companies, the greatest cities have to constantly think about disrupting themselves, thinking about that whole notion of creative destruction. How do you rebirth yourself while maintaining your core principles? Those things that make you who you are?
There’s an incredible concentration of life, science and medical talent that people don’t think about. There are two medical schools in New Orleans proper. There are three if you count the partnership between Ochsner and Queensland University within 15 minutes of each other. We have eight institutions that give two and four-year degrees. There are three business schools and two law schools.
CA: So you’re a cerebral party town. What are New Orleans’ new business ideas?
QM: One, we’ve got to cushion the shock for entrepreneurs who pour their lives into businesses and realize that maybe they have to unwind either voluntarily or involuntarily as well as their employees, so we’re thinking about ways to make on-ramps to new opportunities.
The second thing we’ll have to think about are those companies that we could pivot people towards. I think industrial sterilization is going to be a real viable business for a number of different companies that maybe sell to restaurants and bars and watering holes and help them think about how to keep things sanitized … Figuring out how to purchase masks in less than large bulk quantities. Personalizing masks is another opportunity there. I think telemedicine and telehealth are also areas.
There could be opportunities for a public health corps. Some of the reasons why COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact upon black and brown people are underlying conditions, whether it’s hypertension or diabetes or chronic heart disease, that made these populations more susceptible. And their susceptibility to COVID-19 is also related to loss of productivity because people are sicker than they need to be.
Finally, I think we’ll have to ensure that we understand the entire value chain of the travel industry. We’ve got to figure out how to work with the public, airlines and with airports to make sure people know it’s safe to travel again, and help educate them on wearing face masks, hand washing, social distancing, things of that nature.
CA: What is New Orleans’s secret to constantly beating a crisis?
QM: There’s no city that has the stick-to-itiveness, the long suffering that New Orleanians have, but yet they keep smiling. New Orleans always believes that the sun will come out. I think that’s why we will bounce back from this and we want to invite the world to come visit us. It’s safe, we’re prepared. We’re ready to welcome you. Give New Orleans a look. We’re ready.