“Everybody’s feeling it. The whole area is affected by it. Business has been very slow.” Tammy long, whose bar Swamp Inn off the West Bank Expressway in Westwego has long been a popular watering hole for Avondale shipyard workers.
Tammy Long sees it in the empty bar stools at the Swamp Inn. Sal Giardina sees it in the growing number of repossessions he handles at Gulledge Realty. And for Temento’s owner Steven Hartley, it’s in the drop in demand for recreational boating supplies.
The steady stream of layoffs at Avondale Shipyard hasn’t only changed the lives of the thousands of workers who, over the past three years, have taken their “rip money” and stepped into an uncertain future.
It also has delivered a thousand cuts to the West Bank communities that for 75 years have been anchored by the industrial giant, once the state’s largest private employer.
“Everybody’s feeling it,” said Long, whose bar off the West Bank Expressway in Westwego has long been a popular watering hole for shipyard workers.
“The whole area is affected by it. Business has been very slow.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint how many welders, pipefitters and crane operators have been let go since Northrop Grumman Corp. announced in 2010 it would wind down its Bridge City operations and close or sell the yard.
The official count marks a drop from 5,000 employees to 1,500, but it’s not hard to find workers who say the number employed now is much smaller.
The younger employees chase industry jobs elsewhere, or find another line of work. Others, with three or four decades of service, take their severance and retire.
While it’s hard to measure the effect on the overall economy, no one disputes that Avondale’s decline has struck a major blow.
“This isn’t just any employer,” Westwego Mayor John Shaddinger said. “This place has been an institution on the West Bank for many years. It’s a vital part of this whole community.”
Three years ago, Robert Gros, now 49, was told that after nearly three decades, his days working as a sheet-metal mechanic at Avondale were over.
Gros left the yard armed with six months of severance pay, after which he’d be eligible to collect unemployment. With the exception of a brief stint as a welder, Gros basically went from high school to Avondale in 1982. Since that time, the job market had changed radically.
“There was absolutely no jobs out there at all,” Gros said. “I didn’t know where to turn. It was a shock, actually. Going from working in one place for all those years to all of a sudden being out of work and having to start over from scratch is really a shot in the gut.”
Even the process of looking for a job had changed, thanks to technology.
“Now everything is online,” Gros said. “You can’t even talk to a person face-to-face.
“How do they know what you can do if you can’t even talk to them and tell them what kind of skills you have?”
Gros didn’t want to leave the area, so he kept looking.
The weeks became months, and then a year passed.
“People would take applications and you’d never hear from them,” he said.
After making $23 an hour, Gros was angling for jobs paying $10 an hour or less.
Reality had begun to set in.
“I had to learn how to live off of $200 a week,” he said.
“I pinched pennies, and believe me, I learned how to save a lot more than I did before. It’s an eye-opener when you go from making good money down to just trying to survive. It’s a whole other ballgame.”
It’s a ballgame that many in Westwego, Avondale, Waggaman and Bridge City find themselves playing.
“It’s been really bad the last year,” Denise DeQueant said during a recent lunch hour at the Tastee Donuts on the West Bank Expressway.
The lunch counter, which two years ago would have been packed before the 2 p.m. shift, felt almost funereal. “It’s never been this dead before, and a lot of it has had to do with Avondale,” she said. “I noticed it a year ago when they really started laying off over there.”
At the Swamp Inn, just like at Mona Lisa’s across the way and T Cups Bar just outside the shipyard’s gates, once-familiar faces have become less familiar.
“One of my customers was here every day, and now I might see him once a week,” Long said, noting the man started crabbing and fishing for a living after being let go.
Fishing for pleasure — a way of life in these communities — is more of a luxury, according to Hartley, Temento’s owner.
“This is a huge fishing community; it’s in all of our blood,” Hartley said. “The folks working at Avondale Shipyard, they were trawling on their days off. They recreationally fish, and I do see a decline in that. It’s hard on them. I can see it, and they tell you, ‘I’d like to buy that, but I just don’t have a job yet.’”
Hartley said it’s telling that sales of everyday items like plumbing supplies — which people buy because they have to — have been stable.
So has demand for Temento’s niche-market diving and spearfishing gear, which taps into a high-end clientele from all over the Gulf Coast.
Hartley has had to begin advertising Temento’s boating supplies more in New Orleans and other points across the river, in hopes of reaching new customers and making up what’s been lost on the West Bank.
At the Swamp Inn, Long said she’s started booking live music on the weekend, and she’s hoping a karaoke night during the week will replace some of the customers she’s lost.
As tough as things have been for Gros, he said he knows others who have fared worse.
“I knew people who lost everything they owned: their house, their car, everything. They went from having a good life and making good money and trying to get ahead to losing everything they had,” he said.
Hard data scarce
A sampling of broader economic indicators in the area don’t reflect the drastic downturn some merchants and Avondale workers say they’ve experienced. But evidence of any economic growth in the last few years is in short supply, and other post-Katrina trends seem to be working against this part of West Jefferson.
This summer, Jefferson Parish commissioned a study to help chart a new course for the area, citing the drawdown at Avondale as a major cause for concern.
Shaddinger said that while sales-tax collections in Westwego have been relatively stable, there was a drop of about 4 percent in 2012, and 2013 is projected to be about the same. It’s harder to tease out the sales-tax data for other nearby communities because none of them is incorporated.
According to the Jefferson Parish Assessor’s Office, after accounting for the new Nola Motorsports Park in Avondale, the total taxable value of commercial and residential property in Avondale, Bridge City and Nine Mile Point between 2008 and 2012 was stagnant. Assessor Thomas Capella said his office has started getting calls from mom-and-pop shops that are nervous about how the Avondale layoffs will affect them.
“They have a feeling they’re going to get hurt as the jobs start moving out,” he said. “And it could very well be. The closing of Avondale and the loss of jobs is going to show in taxable value because people can’t afford to stay here.”
The shipyard’s closure is already having an impact on the area’s real-estate market.
According to data from Latter & Blum, after holding steady in 2010, the median sales price of a home in the area around the shipyard — Westwego, Waggaman, Bridge City, Avondale and part of Marrero — plummeted 26 percent in 2011 and then fell another 6 percent so far in 2013, even as it climbed 10 percent in the rest of west Jefferson.
“We’ve seen those ‘For Sale’ signs like we’ve never seen before,” Shaddinger said.
Gary Rachel, a Realtor with RE/Max Real Estate, said the layoffs have especially affected Bridge City. It’s gotten much tougher to sell in the area, and many homeowners are opting to rent their houses because of a perceived glut.
Shaddinger said there are more single family homes being put on the rental market in many areas.
“You didn’t normally see that,” he said. “Only up until the last year or two did I ever see houses for rent. They’ve always been homes.”
Scott Brannon, a broker with Latter & Blum, said he’s represented sellers who refinanced and took money out of their homes before the financial crisis — only to find themselves upside-down on their mortgages after losing their jobs.
“They weren’t raised that way,” he said of the predicament some homeowners found themselves in. “Now all of a sudden they’re positioning themselves to survive. There was a lot of that that occurred.”
The Latter & Blum data show that since 2011, almost half of the sales in the area have been foreclosures or relocations.
At 46 percent in 2013, the category is 13 percentage points higher than it was during the 2009 financial crisis and 15 points higher than it was this year in the rest of west Jefferson.
“Right now, mostly what I’m selling is the low end of the repos, where the investors are picking them up and buying them for cash,” said Giardina, who’s been running Gulledge Realty since 1998.
“The majority of (laid-off workers) are either going to Newport News or Pascagoula, and if they move that far they’re not coming back,” he said. “They just walk away and that’s it.”
For a homeowner who’s suddenly lost his job, it makes sense, Giardina said.
“If you’ve got to move right away and you owe $100,000 on it, you’re not going to get it, so you just walk away from it.”
Years of memories
Oliver Gill, a rigger at Avondale for 24 years, stepped away from a group of co-workers gathered under the Big Shot sign at the Bridge City Avenue Quik Stop after a shift on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
He’s known since July that his days at Avondale are numbered, but he had just been told his “rip date” that afternoon.
“I get laid off on the 25th,” said Gill, whose friends call him Cornbread.
Gill has lived in Marrero for 26 years and doesn’t want to leave his family.
He’s heard there is some work at the shipyard in Pascagoula owned by Huntington Ingalls, which also owns Avondale.
A bus will run him back and forth for $100 a week. It’s not cheap, but he figures he’d burn that in gas anyway.
“And by the time I get back from Mississippi, I won’t have time to do nothing but go to bed, so it’ll average out about the same,” he said.
He figures he doesn’t have much choice.
“I can’t sit back,” he said. “I got two kids in college. Two kids in high school. I’ve gotta do what I gotta do to take care of my family.”
Looking down the street, Gill said Bridge City Avenue is a shadow of its former self. Barrios’, a large general store that used to anchor the strip, serving food, selling smokes and cashing checks, closed two years ago.
The modest Quik Stop is now where they gather.
“We call ourselves family because we spend more time together than we do at home,” he said, pointing to several men who will soon be his former co-workers. “This guy right here, this guy right here, this guy right here … They’re my memories.”
At the Tastee Donuts counter on another recent afternoon, Wilfred “Big Ed” Edwards, 60, was mulling his plans after Nov. 15, when he’ll no longer be a crane operator at the yard. He was told there is work for him in Mississippi, but he says retirement is more likely.
“I don’t know, man,” he said in a slow, deep drawl. “I’m thinking about just giving it up. I’ve got an option to go back out there, but I’m tired now, you know. After all those years out there I don’t think I’ll go back.”
Once again, Gros can relate.
“It was very depressing,” he said of leaving Avondale. “Even now, when I talk to people or try to explain how things were then, I still get kinda choked up and emotional because we were a family. When you spend that much time in one place with those people, they’re like a second family to you.”
Late last year, after job hunting for about 18 months, Gros got hired by the city of Westwego; he now works on a maintenance crew doing jobs around the city. He doesn’t earn what he did in the shipbuilding industry, but the benefits are decent, and his pension from Avondale gives him security.
“I guess you have to do what you have to do,” he said. “I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I still feel for all of the guys that are still left there.”