More than three hours of impassioned arguments by neighbors against the Carrollton Boosters' proposed new soccer complex on The Fly garnered little more from the New Orleans City Council than a promise to provide better advance notice in the future — and a scolding for the tenor of some of the complaints about it.
Last year, the Audubon Commission signed an agreement allowing the Carrollton Boosters to build a new complex with an Astroturf field for soccer and other sports adjacent to its baseball facility on the Riverview area known as The Fly. The plan attracted little attention until last month, when the Carrollton Boosters sought to tear down an old cinderblock bathroom building in the site's footprint — leading to the formation of a Save The Fly activist group, a formal expression of concern from the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association and a picnic rally at the public art structure that also will be removed to make way for the complex.
On Feb. 17, District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell summoned the Audubon Commission and Carrollton Boosters leadership to appear before her Community Development Committee to explain the project. She began with stern words of displeasure about the lack of information shared by either entity about their plans — even with the City Council.
"We were not given a presentation," Cantrell said. "We were not asked for input."
David Sumrall, past president of the Carrollton Boosters, explained the 75-year-old club is an almost all-volunteer organization. They have only two paid full-time employees, in maintenance and concessions, and most of the leadership donates to the club, rather than receiving money from it.
Over the years, the club replaced an old regulation baseball field on The Fly with its current baseball complex, and took over the nearby Avenger Field for other sports, including lacrosse and flag football. Every year, especially since Hurricane Katrina, the club has grown to accommodate the increasing number of families who register, Sumrall said, and the need for even more space became apparent.
"The growth of our programs were exponential," Sumrall said, noting that anyone who registers is allowed to play, regardless of ability to pay the fees. "We've never turned anyone away that I'm aware of."
Audubon Commission Chairman J. Kelly Duncan and Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman emphasized the agreement with the Carrollton Boosters for the current project was signed in an open and publicly noticed meeting of the Audubon Commission in April 2015. Nearly two-thirds of The Fly will remain green space, they said, and will remain a popular feature of the city — just like all the commission's other expansions over the decades.
"The battle cries, all the yelling and screaming — at the end of the day, we worked together," Forman said.
With that, Cantrell's committee opened the floor for more than two hours of public comment. While a number of speakers expressed their support for the new complex, District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry noted the overwhelming majority said they preferred a different arrangement that would preserve The Fly in its current condition.
The opponents — who largely said they support the Carrollton Boosters — said they wanted the complex to find a different location. Their arguments generally followed one or more of the following reasons:
• The area of the Fly proposed for the complex is a "sacred space," one of the best views of the river available to the public. Architect Michael Nius, one of the designers of the public art structure that will be removed, said that location was chosen for that very reason. "It just absolutely is the wrong spot," said Bart Shank. "It does have a magical feel. That soccer field can go a lot of places, but I can't get that magical feel a lot of places."
• Fields for team sports are no replacement for open green space, and the sports complex could be located anywhere. "Fenced-in areas do not allow free play," said Dr. Holly Groh. "In general, I believe we need to have as much open green space as possible. The health of our community needs it both mentally and physically."
• Handing control of that portion of the property amounts to the privatization of open space. "What's going to happen 10 years from now?" asked Tom Fitzpatrick. "Are they going to want a little more?"
• Though the Audubon Commission meeting followed the legal requirements, most of the public was unaware of it, some said. "You're about to break ground, and we just heard of it?" said Maggie Carroll.
• Several speakers criticized the Carrollton Boosters for a lack of diversity in their participants, while noting that the rest of The Fly is enjoyed by members of all races. "There are some cultural issues that need to be addressed before we the public give more public land to an entity like this one," said Tillman Hardy.
• A handful of speakers said the impact of the stadium on quality-of-life issues like traffic congestion and stormwater runoff has not been adequately studied or described.
At the conclusion of these arguments, the City Council members present — Cantrell, Guidry, District E Councilman James Gray and Council Vice President Stacy Head — gave their own thoughts.
Gray, a former Carrollton Boosters coach himself, spoke at length about both sides of the issue. He said the city does a poor job of making its recreation opportunities available to low-income residents, but that the Carrollton Boosters shouldn't be held solely responsible for that problem. If those residents are truly concerned that the Carrollton Boosters overserve affluent families instead of the poor, Gray said, there are plenty of parks in the Lower 9th Ward that lack booster club support and could use volunteers from among the opponents of the project on The Fly.
Head took Gray's comments further. She applauded the Boosters for their commitment to accepting all children who register for team sports and waiving fees for those who say they can't afford them. Head said she might have been inclined to agree with the arguments about public notice or even the privatization of public space, but was turned off by the "thinly guised race-baiting" arguments by some of the speakers.
Guidry — noting the broad opposition to the complex — said she hoped Wednesday's meeting could be the first step toward a compromise.
"Obviously, the people who came here today are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping that portion of The Fly as it is," Guidry said. "I think there should be further discussion."
The City Council already approved the demolition of the bathrooms Feb. 4, however, and Guidry did not revisit that motion. No compromise location was proffered, either by the Audubon or Carrollton leadership at the meeting.
Finally, Cantrell repeated her concerns about the lack of public input into the process, to which Duncan and Forman replied that they had been taking extensive notes on how to improve their communication. Giving the public a forum to express their opinions was the point of Wednesday's committee meeting, Cantrell concluded — and with that, promptly adjourned it.
— This story was produced with our partners at Uptown Messenger. To read more, visit www.uptownmessenger.com.