Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Last day to vote for Freret Street

The Freret Street Business District is vying for a $25,000 award from Markham Vineyards in Napa to help them improve the revitalized business district. Today is the last day to vote on Markham's Web site. You can help New Orleans rebuild!

Freret group in running for $25,000 grant
By Joe Halm
Times-Picayune Contributing writer

Freret Street business owner and resident Kellie Grengs passionately calls herself "Freret Street's biggest cheerleader." True to that role, she's working to get the commercial stretch national recognition, but she needs the public's help in this instance.

The Freret Street Business and Property Owner Association is in the running, along with nine other organizations across the country, for a $25,000 Markham Mark of Distinction grant. The winners will be chosen via an online vote that ends Tuesday. The top two organizations each will receive a $25,000 grant.

Votes can be cast once a day by visiting www.thenewfreret.com and clicking the Markham Mark of Distinction link at the top of the page.

"I'm so excited because we've been No. 1 in the online voting since Aug. 10 when it started," said Grengs, who serves as the Freret Street association's marketing officer. "I'm doing everything I can to get the word out."

The Markham Mark of Distinction grants began in 2008. Since then, four organizations have received the award, including groups in New York, Illinois, Kansas and New Jersey.

The grants are sponsored by Markham Vineyards, a Napa Valley, Calif., winery that has a lineage dating back to 1874. Fittingly enough, Grengs heard about the contest from a friend, who is an avid wine connoisseur. Grengs herself has been to Markham vineyards.

Markham President Bryan Del Bondio said this year he has received hundreds of proposals. He said the support from the public for the 10 finalist projects makes it "clear that the Markham Mark of Distinction is something community leaders want and need."

Projects can range from repairing dilapidated homes, to painting a mural, renovating a park or starting a community garden. In the case of Freret Street, the money would go toward increased marketing and security upgrades along the commercial corridor, which runs from Jefferson to Napoleon avenues.

"I broke down a bit of a budget, and the biggest thing on Freret Street is that all of the small businesses have SBA (Small Business Association) loans from Katrina," Grengs said. "So we have zero advertising budget because we are busy paying for all of these other overhead costs."

Grengs said she looked at the success of other commercial corridors like Oak Street, which benefitted from a Main Street grant to promote the area, and thought Freret Street would benefit as well.

"Other neighborhoods have seen a resurgence with the help of grant funds that allow for block advertising and an increased Web presence," she said. "In order to brand and promote Freret Street we need the money."

Increased safety is the other part of the grant. Grengs plans to use a portion of the grant to pay for a security officer to walk the corridor on Saturday nights.

"Safety is a huge issue for consumers," she said. "People want to feel safe going to visit Freret Street to shop, dine, go to a local bar or see comedy or music."

Neal Bodenheimer, the Freret association's executive committee chairman, who also owns Cure bar, said the street is poised for substantial growth.

"It is a very high traffic area, and it has always been a business corridor since at least the '40s," he said. "I think a lot of people felt like it was an underused area of the city."

With the potential help of the Markham grant, the association hopes to change that perception. Already, Grengs said, the interest to build is apparent.

She said she receives at least an e-mail a week from people interested in starting businesses on Freret Street, hoping to join the more than three dozen businesses already there, including a coffee shop, po-boy shop, hardware store, boxing gym and community center.

"Everyone is excited to see what happens on Freret Street," she said. "Between the boxing and the market starting up again, there is a lot going on here. People really want to invest and come back to the neighborhood."

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Joe Halm is a contributor to The Times-Picayune.

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