Several blocks south of the throbbing rhythms of Bourbon Street, stomping ground of world-famous jazzmen and die-hard revelers, is a quiet savings bank that appears to have seen better days.
A couple of letters have fallen off the small "Savings and Loan" sign. A larger, turquoise sign with a cartoon owl perched on top rises up the side of the two-story building.
The sign, which reads "Dryades," looks like 1950s kitsch. But the name inspired respect from this city's financial community for 91 years, until the thrift was seized by regulators four years ago.
Last fall it reopened, without much fanfare, under the guidance of a primarily local black investor group and a black president, Virgil Robinson.
Mr. Robinson is one of a growing number of dynamic young black bank presidents. Though most of their banks, like Dryades Savings , do not profess to be solely "black banks," they nevertheless are providing stimulus for many of the country's impoverished minority communities.
And Dryades is about to shift into high gear.
On July 1 the thrift will launch a $100,000 campaign in the local media. The campaign will tout its commitment to its traditional customers - many of whom stayed with the thrift through its three years of receivership - and to the underserved minority neighborhoods of this city.
The media splash will coincide with the thrift's move out of its uninspiring headquarters to a stately, six-story former bank building across the street known as the Cotton Exchange Building.
The move was made possible through the Resolution Trust Corp.'s minority preference program, which will provide the thrift with a rent-free lease with an option to buy after five years.
Mr. Robinson hopes to build $66 million-asset Dryades, purchased from the RTC last fall for a $10,000 premium, into a respected $100 million- asset institution in the next three to five years.
Part of the plan is to reopen by 1997 two branches the RTC closed.
Mr. Robinson played for Green Bay Packers and later with the New Orleans Saints.
His career shortened by injuries, he entered banking profession full- time at the age of 26, rising from loan collector to senior vice president at a local bank.
For the past six years, he worked at Liberty Bank and Trust Co. - one of two other minority-owned financial institutions in New Orleans - where he became chief lending officer. Last summer one of his customers told him about another opportunity.
"I could go to him for the answers, and he was never too impatient to teach a dummy like me what banking was all about," says Nolan A. Marshall, a successful local businessman and one of the founding directors of Dryades. "If he could be that way with me, then I knew he could be that way for others."
Mr. Marshall, who heads a contracting business that does around $7 million in annual sales, brought Mr. Robinson to the attention of the other organizers of Dryades. That group includes Charles C. Teamer Sr., a prominent local leader, who has become chairman of the board of Dryades.
"Great restaurants are known by their chefs," says Mr. Teamer. "In the same way, people go to banks because of their reputations and the people who run them."
He once carried the football 70 yards for a touchdown in the pros, and Mr. Robinson, who at 47 has maintained his running back physique, has been given the ball once again.
But this time he has to carry it much further.
The investor group, which is primarily black and local but includes professionals from as far away as California, expects Mr. Robinson and his new management team to resurrect Dryades and transform it into a reliable retail and commercial lender, specializing in home loans and other traditional thrift services.
Dryades has received support from the city's 36-year-old black mayor, Marc Morial, who is implementing an inner-city redevelopment program, as well as blessings from the local financial establishment.
First National Bank of Commerce, for example, has purchased $1 million in preferred stock in Dryades, accounting for 20% of the bank's start-up equity capital.
First National, which earns Community Reinvestment Act credit for its investment, made a similar investment in Liberty Bank and Trust Co. about nine years ago.
Liberty, with Mr. Robinson as one of its leaders, more than doubled in size in recent years to become a $125 million-asset institution.
"We have one success story, and now we're looking for another one," says Ashton J. Ryan Jr., president and chief executive of $6.8 billion-asset First National. "We've got $1 million that says (Dryades) will be successful."
The new Dryades team did not get put together overnight. In fact, it took nearly three years. The original investor group consisted primarily of California investors and shareholders of another minority-owned bank, Founders National Bank of Los Angeles. That bank was purchased from the RTC in 1991 by minority investors who subsequently looked eastward for other opportunities.
Dryades appeared ideal, but the Californians quickly ran into resistance from potential New Orleans investors, who were reluctant to get involved in a venture controlled mainly by out-of-towners.
The ensuing delays drove away most of the original investors, but one who stayed on is Carlton J. Jenkins, president and chief executive of Founders and now a Dryades director.
"If something comes across my desk that will be of interest to Virgil, I'll call him in a second," says Mr. Jenkins. "We're giving them the benefit of our experience as they craft their procedures and policies."
Both of these banks are products of the RTC's at times controversial minority preference program.
The program was designed to preserve failed minority institutions in low-income neighborhoods through several forms of assistance.
Though Mr. Robinson speaks favorably of the RTC's dealings with him, Dryades wrestled with the government agency for more than two years to secure a loan portfolio equal to the amount of deposits acquired, which was about $66 million.
The delays were costly, not only because they led to investors dropping out, but because each day in receivership meant additional deposit runoff.
During the negotiation period, which lasted two and a half years, deposits shrank 52%, says David C. Lensing of Financial Consultants Inc., a Tennessee firm retained by the original investors.
"This was a tragedy, because they easily could be a $120 million-deposit institution if they could've gotten the deal done," Mr. Lensing says.
The final delays stemmed in part from disagreements over the loan pricing. Officials in the agency's Dallas office say the delays came mainly from their difficulty in finding quality loans to offer Dryades.
Nevertheless, Mr. Robinson appears generally grateful to the RTC. He acknowledges that Dryades could not have built up its current $54 million in loans overnight, nor could it have afforded to move him and his staff of 40 into the new building without RTC help.
Mr. Robinson's early efforts have already begun to pay off, as evidenced by a $127,000 profit in the first quarter, unusual for a new bank.
As for the owl atop the old sign out front, it will be modified somewhat, Mr. Robinson mentions with a slight smile. That owl, known as Hootie, will be made smaller and - more important - will be in flight.