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by Abby Ellin

It has been a long time since the word “optimism” was spoken in the same sentence as “New Orleans.”

But a small group of entrepreneurs has been using that word lately to describe their efforts to attract small businesses to New Orleans. For now, their enthusiasm may be greater than their results. But they say the city’s low rents and business tax incentives along with its music and culture have proved to be powerful lures, despite the still-halting efforts to get past the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We’re seeing the exact same thing here that we saw in the Bay Area in the mid ’90s,” said Michael Hecht, 38, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., a nonprofit economic development agency. He moved to New Orleans in early 2006 after time in both San Francisco and New York. “There’s a sense of opportunity and possibility, combined with people who have the horsepower to actualize those possibilities.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, at least four formal entrepreneurial hubs have been established in New Orleans: Entrepreneur’s Row, the Icehouse, the I.P., (an acronym for Intellectual Property) and the Entergy Innovation Center. While they all hope to help nurture individual businesses, they are not technically incubators. Instead, they house start-ups and established companies while focusing on “clustering like-minded entrepreneurs to build their businesses together,” said Tim Williamson, 44, the co-founder and chief executive of the Idea Village, a nonprofit group founded in 2000 that helped created the I.P.

So far, they seem to be doing something right. According to the Louisiana Workforce Commission, the New Orleans metropolitan area reported an increase of nearly 100,000 nonfarm jobs from October 2005 — soon after Katrina — to June 2009. By 2016, the commission expects New Orleans area employment to grow 24 percent from 2006 levels, or to 98.8 percent of pre-Katrina levels.

“There has never been a better time in Louisiana for the creative class to thrive,” said Mitchell J. Landrieu, the state’s lieutenant governor.

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