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Special Report: New Orleans Recreation Department 

Gambit visited 25 NORD facilities to gauge the state of the New Orleans recreation department. What we found was an agency in crisis

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  The agency's budget has been halved from $10 million to $5 million in the last 10 years, and it pales in comparison to the $40 million annual operating budget of the Baton Rouge Recreation Commission (BREC). Of BREC's $40 million annual budget, $10 million goes to parkway and park maintenance; the other $30 million funds facilities and a wide variety of recreational programs.

  BREC's governing structure was separated from Baton Rouge city government in the 1940s and is funded by a city millage.

  "I know things are pretty tough down in New Orleans for parks and recreation," says Mike Proctor, finance director of BREC, who was born in New Orleans. "My dad was a parks director down there many years ago, and I keep up with the goings-on down there. It's not pretty."

  Proctor attributes BREC's success to its separate dedicated funding stream, something New Orleans has considered as part of a best practices report undertaken by the city's Recreation Citizens Advisory Panel. "The mayor doesn't tell the school board what to do, and the city doesn't tell the parks board what to do in Baton Rouge," Proctor says. "They're not in competition with the police department for funding, and people like the parks, so they vote to pay for them every time it comes around."

  Mayor Landrieu supports the public-private partnership that the advisory panel has proposed, but he has balked at asking voters for a property tax to pay for the broken agency, which was a cornerstone of the advisory panel's report. Instead, the mayor has suggested using the city's general operating fund to double NORD's budget from $5 million to $10 million next year. Meanwhile, Fielkow is pushing to reform NORD's governing structure to reflect the public-private partnership suggested by the advisory panel. A charter referendum embodying the proposed reform will go before city voters in October.

  "You build the right organization, you build the right structure, you have an organized development department, and I think the money will come," St. Etienne says.

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  "I think the real issue is that the leadership of NORD, historically, has been beholden to the politics," says Rod West, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Entergy Corporation — and co-chair of Landrieu's NORD transition team. "It's been difficult to have a long-term strategy as the director of NORD if the election cycle happens every two-and-a-half to three years. We can talk about all of the esoteric issues, but when you're talking about connecting programs to the kids, what you're really talking about is money."

  West says an independent governing structure for NORD is most likely to woo back private-sector investment. "We want to hire a chief executive who doesn't have his livelihood interrupted because there's a new mayor in town," he says. "When the private sector is making an investment, they're looking for stability of leadership, clarity of strategy and predictable outcomes."

  Over the last 30 years, NORD has seen 14 directors, and "from the private sector that says you have no stability in leadership or strategy," West says. "And the private sector had disengaged because they no longer had confidence that the strategy they were investing in was going to be around long enough to see it through."

  West notes that a dedicated millage for NORD was also on the cards during the reform process, but that "there's only so much headroom for additional taxes to be supported by a limited number of people in New Orleans."

  "When millages arise, everybody wants to jump on board," says West's fellow co-chair of the NORD transition team, Roy A. Glapion, senior vice president of Professional Service Industries. "It's in the best interests of NORD to move this reform forward, and the millage may not have been the best way to do that."

Not everyone is convinced the proposed structural reform is a panacea, however.

  "I think the idea of a public-private commission is a good idea," Hedge-Morrell says. "But my concern is I don't want to change the whole structure of NORD if we don't have the money there in the first place."

  Hedge-Morrell points to BREC as an example of a recreation district with a dedicated funding source from property taxes — and she wonders whether soliciting donations from private business is a better idea. "We know we need the money," Hedge-Morrell says. "And we always say public-private partnerships, but the question is, how much can the private [sector] put up? Entergy can only do so much."

  Meanwhile, others are simply frustrated with NORD's lack of progress since Katrina.

  "Probably my biggest frustration is in the five years since the storm, there just seems to be a lack of urgency around what to do to bring NORD back," says Gena Warner, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Afterschool Partnership. "But we are so far from strategic planning. We're just trying to right the ship right now."

  "The time for action has come and passed," Johnson adds. "And people are tired of waiting. They're angry. They're mad, and they have good reason to be."


GAMBIT'S NORD SITE VISITS

Here’s a quick video of what we found during the research of this report — and please keep in mind that these aren’t abandoned or defunct playgrounds: these are active NORD facilities, this is is where the city of New Orleans expects its children to play, today.

To view the Methodology of this report and to find a Google Map assembled by Gambit, showing the location of all 134 NORD sites on the FEMA list, click here.

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