At City Park these days, even CEO Bob Becker sometimes has to mow the grass. During the typical sub-tropical conditions of late summer, when you can almost see the grass shoots sprouting skyward, everyone on the park's staff joins volunteers pushing or riding a lawn mower.
"It's a two-edged sword," Becker says. "Some days I get on the mower to get out of the office, and some days I do whatever is needed to help the maintenance staff. We all do."
As late as August 2006, many were bemoaning the park's overgrown condition and FEMA's perceived non-response to pleas for help. Since then, the park has staged a remarkable comeback. And many more projects are in the works.
Evidence abounds of City Park's recovery in the past year. The Lelong Avenue park entrance, which leads to the New Orleans Museum of Art, now radiates with blooming crepe myrtles and live oaks. Bayou St. John supplies brackish water to park lagoons that have been restocked with fish. A verdant glow of thousands of new bulrush, spartina, needle rush and freshly grown and mowed grass imbues the park's more than 1,300 acres. Brides once again fulfill their dreams of a beautiful wedding in City Park. And perhaps best of all, the park's human population no longer consists of gun-toting National Guard troops, but everyday volunteers armed with rakes, hoes and checkbooks.
In addition to the recovery progress made so far, the park has numerous new projects on the drawing board. Park officials recently inked a $3.7 million contract with Rycars Construction to restore the park's restrooms, Popp's Bandstand, the Tennis Center, various fountains and fences, and the Casino building. Before Katrina, the park's board had approved a master plan calling for $115 million in improvements and renovations to be completed by 2018 -- the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans.
Many feared that Katrina would wash away that plan, but Becker says City Park can still meet the 2018 deadline, despite losing almost two years to the storm. Rather than scrapping the plan, park officials are using it as a guidepost so that post-Katrina repairs do more than just restore facilities to their pre-Katrina condition.
"Mostly, where [projects] have started, it has been a result of the damage that was done during Katrina, so when we're repairing the damage, we're not just repairing the damage, we're trying to implement the master plan at the same time," Becker says.
For example, at Tad Gormley Stadium, FEMA will pay for storm-related repairs -- but not for the kind of long-term enhancements proposed by the master plan. To take things to the next level, park officials will supplement FEMA dollars with contributions from the city, Coca-Cola and the Sugar Bowl Committee. Thus, instead of merely repairing parts of the stadium's electrical system, the entire system will be replaced and upgraded. Additional enhancements taken from the master plan, including new locker rooms and bathrooms, are also in the works at Tad Gormley.
The work never stops.
The repair-and-improve projects at City Park include the following:
• Storyland improvements. Storyland, which generates badly needed user fees for the park, is slated for $350,000 in improvements under the master plan. Park officials already have raised about half that amount, but they've also spent $100,000 in private contributions on painting and refiberglassing some of Storyland's exhibits, renovating the Dragon Slide and building new exhibits, including one at the entrance that features Humpty Dumpty (all in one piece) on a brick wall holding one end of a "Storyland" flag while Little Bo Peep holds up the other end.
• Significant improvements to the park's three golf courses. Park officials actually have a choice between restoring all three courses, as suggested by the master plan, or teaming with the Fore!Kids Foundation, promoters of the annual Zurich Classic and other golf-related events that raise money for kids' charities, to combine the park's three golf courses into two championship courses and one "first tee course" for kids. Fore!Kids wants to manage the courses and combine park improvements with a larger plan that includes money for public schools and mixed-use housing near City Park.
• Enhancements to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens have been a crown jewel of City Park since they opened in 1936 as part of FDR's Works Progress Administration. In what has become City Park's modern version of the New Deal, park officials have combined FEMA recovery aid with private, city and state contributions to restore and enhance the gardens as called for in the master plan. For many, reopening the gardens for the 2005 "Celebration in the Oaks" was a sign that New Orleans' recovery was possible. Under the master plan, the Botanical Gardens will undergo $4 million in infrastructural repairs and improvements. Becker says the park has already spent $1.5 million -- a combination of private donations, FEMA money and volunteer labor -- to overhaul the gardens' antiquated electrical and irrigation systems and to replace dead vegetation. Additionally, the garden's Pavilion of the Two Sisters has a new terrace and refurbished doors. "The storm was the impetus not only to repair, but also to make the building better," Becker says of Katrina.
• A system of bike paths. The first phase of construction of a 10-foot-wide bike path is nearing completion along Robert E. Lee Boulevard, stretching from Wisner Boulevard to Marconi Drive. The second phase will run along Wisner Boulevard, from Robert E. Lee to Interstate 610. The bike path, which fulfills one of the park's long-range goals of encouraging healthy living, will be underwritten by a combination of state and federal funds. By the time the master plan is fully implemented, one bike path will trace the park's outer boundaries, with other paths dissecting the park's interior.
• Lelong Avenue improvements. Revitalizing the park's main entrance attracted contributions from Rotary International, the Rotary clubs of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the City of New Orleans and the state. Those improvements include 130 crepe myrtles and 40 young (15-year-old) live oaks. A host of private donors is helping the park with operating costs as well. The new entrance will take time to acquire the majesty of the Dueling Oaks, but park development officer John Hopper is convinced it will become a local landmark. "It's like the old Chinese proverb," Hopper says. "One generation plants the trees and the next generation enjoys the shade."
• Pan American Stadium. Park officials have faced criticism for the slow rebound of Pan American Stadium, but Becker says the park now has $1.3 million of $1.5 million in renovation funds proposed in the master plan. Within weeks, Becker says, construction will begin on new bleachers and a new scoreboard as well as electrical repairs and a new field. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2008.
• Tri-Centennial Place. To mark the 300th anniversary of New Orleans' founding, park officials propose to build Tri-Centennial Place by 2018. The new facilities will include a rock-climbing area, a miniature golf course, a water-spray park for kids, a children's theater, an amphitheater and a skateboard park. The area also will feature something called The Great Lawn, a large open area where people can throw a Frisbee, sunbathe or just congregate. Becker says every great urban park needs such an area, which also will support City Park's vision of offering venues for programs and cultural activities. Last week, a construction crew began demolishing the long-closed public pool to make room for the new facilities.
• A new tennis complex. Building Tri-Centennial Place will require relocating the park's tennis courts. The courts will move to the Marconi Meadows area, which will accommodate 25 state-of-the-art courts -- 10 clay courts and 15 hard courts -- and a new clubhouse. Becker says the existing courts will not close until the new tennis center is complete.
Tri-Centennial Place and the new tennis complex will cost more than $17 million, but the financing, just like the construction itself, will come from various sources -- the state, user fees, and corporate and private donations.
City Park calls itself "the most entrepreneurial park in all of parkdom." Even so, the park's revival wouldn't have occurred if not for its incredible -- and seemingly indefatigable -- army of volunteers and donors.
City Park suffered $43 million in damages as a result of Katrina. Its workforce was reduced from 260 employees to 23. Worse, the park's closure meant it could no longer collect user fees, which, along with fundraising, supplied almost all of the park's $10.8 million pre-Katrina budget.
Looking back at those shocking days of September 2005, Becker now says that it didn't take "rocket science" to figure out what needed to be done. "When we got back to the park, it was just devastation everywhere," Becker recalls. "It was hard to concentrate, so I knew we had to develop a focus."
Becker huddled with his top managers -- chief operating officer Rob DeViney, chief administrative officer George Parker and chief development officer Hopper -- and they quickly reduced the park's recovery to a four-point strategy:
• Clean the park.
• Reopen revenue-generating facilities.
• Aggressively raise funds.
• Pursue the master plan.
Cleaning up the mess may have been an obvious starting point, but who was going to do the work? Becker had to layoff 237 park employees, something he recalls as "the most painful thing I've ever had to do as an executive." In some cases, employees who were with the park for more than 25 years had to be let go.
"Very few people come to the park for the Wall Street benefits package," Hopper says. "They were here for other reasons. Some of them had lost their houses, so it was like, 'Oh and by the way, you don't have a job anymore.'"
For the 23 employees who remained, still having a job meant everyone -- executives and all -- had to pick up a shovel and get to work. Parker, an accounting executive in his 50s who was accustomed to punching a keyboard, was now in charge of cleaning the amusement park area. Each day, he would work long hours with a chainsaw cutting thousands of scattered tree limbs, sweating in the late summer sun.
No matter how hard or how long they worked, 23 people could never bring back City Park by themselves. By October 2005, the first federal aid arrived in the form of private subcontractors with hundreds of workers and heavy construction equipment. Even then, the task seemed insurmountable. Enter the Mormons.
A group of 150 Mormon volunteers also arrived in October 2005 and offered their assistance. They brought their own tools, food and necessities; all they needed was some direction. With an eye to the second point of their post-K strategy -- reopening revenue-generating facilities -- park officials pointed the volunteers to Storyland and the amusement park. Within two days, the volunteers cleared away tons of debris in both areas.
With the cleanup moving along at a brisk pace, Becker turned his attention to "Celebration in the Oaks," the annual holiday sound and light show that brings thousands of nightly visitors to the park from Thanksgiving to New Years Day. The park's premier annual event was only three months away when Becker first returned to New Orleans after Katrina. His initial conclusion was that there was no hope -- or cause -- for the celebration in 2005.
By mid-October, however, he began to think that "Celebration" might be possible after all. As with most projects at the park, it required a change of strategy. Before Katrina, the Azby Foundation had approved a million-dollar donation for another park project, but with so much of the park destroyed by Katrina, the foundation agreed to shift its commitment to the restoration of the Botanical Gardens -- a key component of "Celebration in the Oaks."
But one obstacle remained: FEMA.
Like thousands of south Louisiana homeowners, City Park was underinsured when Katrina hit. "Nothing was coming to the park unless it was coming from FEMA," DeViney says. "We didn't know what implications [putting on Celebration in the Oaks] would have with FEMA. We didn't care -- we just wanted to get the park back."
In what must seem like a Christmas miracle, the job was finished in time to allow walking tours through the Botanical Gardens and Storyland as part of the annual holiday lights extravaganza. "This was hugely important -- symbolically and from a revenue standpoint," Becker recalls.
While the park was putting together the celebration in November, DeViney took on the assignment of trying to unravel the Stafford Act, which governs how FEMA aid is awarded and can be spent. "You're learning the language," DeViney says. "You have to get educated -- what are eligible and ineligible storm-related damages."
By the time City Park issued its six-month post-Katrina report, FEMA had only approved six "project worksheets" -- and a paltry $6,500 had been allocated by the feds for park restoration work. By comparison, the Superdome, poised to reopen in September 2006 with star-studded fanfare, had been allocated $115 million from FEMA, along with a $13 million match from the state. Park administrators were frustrated.
"Our recovery was going very slow because we couldn't get them to approve anything," Becker recalls.
A major break came in September 2006, when Angele Davis, secretary of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, convened a meeting in Baton Rouge with City Park and FEMA representatives. As a result of Davis' intervention, the park got a new FEMA representative and team, and a much more cooperative arrangement ensued. The new FEMA project manager walked DeViney through each project, often pointing out reimbursable items that park staff might have overlooked. By last month, 514 project worksheets had been accepted by FEMA, and an estimated $20.5 million had been allocated to the park. "I'm a big fan of FEMA now," DeViney says.
DeViney believes that by the time City Park completes all its FEMA claims, it should have worksheets totaling close to $30 million. Unfortunately, the Stafford Act limits the flow of funds to public parks. "It's about bricks and mortar, and that doesn't necessarily mean a park for people to recreate in," DeViney says. "They don't pay for golf courses, plants, or restocking ponds. They don't pay for 'living collections.'"
Park officials quickly realized they needed political help, particularly as relates to the third item on their post-K to-do list: raising money. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whose office oversees the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and state Sen. Edwin Murray, whose district includes City Park, stepped in and helped restructure the park's business model. The previous model depended heavily on user fees, particularly those generated by the golf courses. Consequently, Becker often found himself "praying for a sunny day" before the storm.
The new model gives City Park breathing room. Murray and Landrieu convinced lawmakers to give the park almost $2.5 million in operating funds this fiscal year -- 30 percent of its $7 million budget. They also secured another $1 million for reforestation efforts and convinced the state Bond Commission in March to allocate $6.2 million to bring back the golf courses. Becker says the allocations are an effective use of tax dollars. "A major urban park is like police service, fire department service or library service -- these are quality of life services. You expect the public is going to pay a portion of the costs of sustaining these services."
Looking ahead, Murray and Landrieu lobbied for the park to get a share of long-term state capital outlay funds -- upwards of $20 million ultimately. Murray also authored a new law that lets City Park keep sales tax revenues generated by user fees and plow those revenues back into park operations and capital improvements. "This is another area where our new relationship with the state is really meaningful for us," Becker says.
Meanwhile, park officials are working with representatives from the United States Golf Association to convince FEMA that the golf courses should qualify for significant funding, but it's an uphill battle. FEMA's initial offer was $350,000 -- after park officials submitted a request for $4 million. The park and the USGA are concentrating their efforts on the popular North Course, hoping to get more money out of FEMA and then use that process as a template for the park's other two courses.
Restoring the golf courses is just a first step. Looking ahead, park officials will soon decide how to manage the courses long-term. The Fore!Kids Foundation has proposed combining state bond money, the park's FEMA award and funds from private investors to renovate and then privately manage the park's golf complex. Fore!Kids would pay the park an annual fee and other inducements, but the proposal calls for significant changes to City Park's current map. Most notable is Fore!Kids' proposal to reduce the number of golf courses from three full courses to two full courses and a nine-hole "first tee course" for kids, and possibly building a softball or soccer complex on the site of the North Course.
Mike Rodrigue, a Fore!Kids Foundation board member, says allowing the foundation to run the golf courses means more money for local charity organizations. "At the end of the day, our goal is to make money through the golf operations," Rodrigue says. "We don't keep any of it; it goes right back to the community."
Another possibility is for the park to pursue the golf improvements outlined in its master plan, which includes more than $20 million in golf course improvements and maintaining the three courses it now has.
Becker promises a decision soon.
The recent infusion of state funds and the promise of additional FEMA monies haven't slowed City Park's private-sector fundraising efforts. Since the storm, the park has raised $10 million in private donations. Becker attributes much of the windfall to the master plan.
"We were able to tell people, 'we don't have to make a plan -- we already have a plan. We just need money,'" Becker says.
Some of the money has come from large pledges, such as $2 million from the Trust for Public Land, a national park conservancy group, which will landscape the park's southeastern Big Lake area into walking trails, bicycle paths, and a meadow for outdoor concerts. Others have come in smaller amounts, including $5,000 from an anonymous donor.
Those funds have enabled the park to hire back employees -- it now has 46 people on staff -- to follow the master plan, and to restore storm-closed facilities. Some donors have targeted specific projects. Among them:
• Starbucks Foundation gave $250,000 for Shelter No. 1 renovations.
• The Sugar Bowl Committee gave $800,000 for upgrading locker rooms, restrooms and concession areas at Tad Gormley Stadium.
• The NFL Youth Football Fund is donating $550,000 for new artificial turf in Pan American Stadium.
• Reggie Bush and Adidas gave $86,000 for Tad Gormley's new field, which allowed revenue-producing high school football games to resume in 2006.
• The Tauk Foundation pledged $40,000 for work on the Pavilion of the Two Sisters.
• The United States Tennis Association handed over a $150,000 check to fix the park's public tennis courts.
Not every park project has found a sponsor, but Hopper and Becker, the park's principal fundraisers, continue to search. Some projects, such as the master plan's proposed dog park, have lost sponsors. The Louisiana SPCA was originally slated to partner with City Park to run the park, but Becker says that group is no longer interested. Many urban parks have special dog parks, but Becker says that's not something City Park can provide on its own. "We need a partner -- someone who can operate the dog park," he says.
Jackie Shreves, a board member of both the City Park Improvement Association and the Louisiana SPCA, wants to be that partner. She formed an organization to raise money to make the dog park a reality. "I think we're the only major city without a dog park," says Shreves. "So we're going to do the research and do this right."
Some groups have preferred to contribute sweat equity. When the National Association of Realtors held its conference in New Orleans in November 2006, some 500 volunteers spent more than 2,500 hours planting trees and shoreline grasses, clearing up debris around Popp Fountain and stringing lights for "Celebration in the Oaks."
Corporations with local connections also have pitched in. Sandy Daleo, a community relations analyst for Shell Exploration & Production Company, says childhood memories played a part in Shell's commitment to the park.
"If you're local like Frank Glaviano (Shell's top local executive and Gambit Weekly's 2006 New Orleanian of the Year) and I, City Park means a lot," Daleo says. "It meant Sunday visits. We used to gather there right off Marconi. It was kind of ingrained."
Daleo hopes to indoctrinate others by making City Park volunteerism part of Shell's summer intern training program. Each intern -- some are Houston-based and some are New Orleans-based -- will spend a day of community service at the park.
Northrop Grumman, an international defense and technology company with operations in Avondale, is another example of corporate donors with longstanding ties to City Park. Before Katrina, the company built the train depot for the amusement park and returned after the storm to check its status. The company cleaned and re-painted the depot, then started new projects -- repairing train tracks, sandblasting benches and making other amusement park improvements called for in the master plan. During 2005 and 2006, Northrop Grumman gave more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind donations to the park.
Grumman's generosity, along with that of other public and private donors who gave more than $3 million to rebuild the amusement park, has paid off. The park-within-a-park, with its beloved miniature train and various new rides, reopened to paying customers in March. Construction continues in the amusement park; the concession building is getting a new electrical system, a new roof and new signage.
While corporate and convention volunteers can make a big difference in a few days, individual volunteers have had the largest impact. Some of them never even check in with park administrators, Hopper says. They just show up -- nearly every day -- as if the park were their own backyard. One woman -- Hopper doesn't even know her name -- has been pulling up small "trash trees" that grow around the bases of larger trees and prevent grass mowers from cutting closer. Each day, maintenance crews find evidence of her toil: big heaps of the pulled trash trees neatly piled by the side of the road.
"If you put together the total of our individual volunteers, it probably exceeds the total of large groups put together," Hopper says.
By combining private and public funds and orchestrating an army of volunteers -- more than 11,000 people have provided the park with 59,110 volunteers hours, the equivalent of more than $1 million in donated labor -- City Park has brought back many of its main attractions and is planting the seeds of new ones. Storyland and the Amusement Park, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, the Botanical Gardens, the Couterie Forest and Arboretum (although trees are still being replanted), the tennis courts, the Pavilion of the Two Sisters and The Peristyle, and the popular Twilight Garden Concerts now bring in needed revenue. Equally if not more important, they also draw old and new generations back to the park.
That cross-generational appeal, so important to City Park throughout its existence, could well be the next post-Katrina miracle that helps put the park back together again.
City Park will hold a public hearing about the master plan from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 25 in the Pavilion of the Two Sisters at the Botanical Gardens. At the hearing, Park officials will provide an update on the progress being made on the master plan and give the public a chance to make comments.