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Cause for Optimism 

The worst thing about gloom is that it can be contagious — and that's dangerous in a city poised as precariously as New Orleans is between recovery and ruin.

The good news is that optimism can be contagious as well. The tough part is finding good, solid reasons to feel better about our city's prospects. I think I found some last week, so I'm going to share in the hope that it'll be contagious.

I got an upbeat email from the New Orleans Community Support Foundation, which is the blue-ribbon board that is responsible for spending millions of dollars to supervise formulation of the citywide recovery plan. The foundation members aren't writing the plan, but they are fiduciaries of the donated money that's paying for the plan. In effect, they must make sure the money is well spent.

Sure, it took a while for the mayor, the governor and the City Council to get on the same page, but now that they've done so, I'm glad to see they've put some of the city's leading professionals and business leaders in charge of making sure the recovery plan is both fair and workable.

Wayne Lee, chairman of the foundation's board, is a partner at one of the city's most prestigious law firms, Stone Pigman, and several years ago he became the first African-American president of the Louisiana State Bar Association. I know Wayne both personally and professionally, so I'll admit to having a bias in his favor. When I spoke to him on the phone, I wasn't sure if I should offer congratulations or condolences. He had the good humor to laugh.

"I have optimism that we have a process that can get us to the end. But, I assume there will be some speed bumps on the way," Lee says. "Our primary effort has been to start getting together the technology, the planners and the resources to provide all of the tools for the community as it recovers."

The process is well under way. The foundation last week announced the results of a national panel's recommendations regarding the selection of a citywide planning team as well as a number of neighborhood and district planning teams. The various teams will guide the city's long-term recovery efforts by working with the city's neighborhoods, each of which is responsible for drafting its recovery plan.

Think back to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's recovery plan that was initially unveiled in January and note that it called for technical assistance to be provided to each neighborhood in the course of drafting its recovery plan. Well, these planning teams constitute that technical assistance.

Help is finally about to arrive.

"There is no book that you can go to for a blueprint on how to do a planning effort of this size and this magnitude -- either in terms of the number of people, size of the community, or the depth of the recovery that has to be addressed," says Lee. "We will see different groups at different levels of development of their plans. It's going to be an interesting and challenging effort, but I'm optimistic because people are coming together to come up with a single plan."

The foundation and the New Orleans Community Support Organization -- the group that's "on the ground" with the planning effort -- will begin hosting key meetings this week to link planning teams with neighborhoods so that the process can begin. Or resume. Some neighborhoods already have made tremendous progress on their plans, and Lee says planners will meet them wherever they are in that process and help them finish the job. No one will have to start over, he says.

On Monday (July 24), information about the process will be placed on the foundation's Web site ( and disseminated to various community groups. The first round of meetings will be on Sunday (July 30) at a site to be announced, starting at 2 p.m. Another meeting will be next Tuesday (Aug. 1). Check out the Web site to get more info -- and get involved.

Who knows? You might even catch a little optimism.

"People should understand that this is an effort to have planning from the ground up, where we're getting the input from the neighborhoods as opposed to imposing a plan from above," says Lee. "Hopefully, that's something that will give this plan its strength. That's our hope, and we're optimistic that that's something that will make this successful."


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