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Clearing the Net 

Coconut Beach has been a good citizen of New Orleans, providing a place for thousands to play beach volleyball, adding income to NORD's coffers and maintaining what once was a derelict playground. Now the city and the Corps must decide its future.

Nearly everyone who has lived in New Orleans for any length of time has pleasant memories of the city's lakefront. Generations of parents would pack up the kids and head down to one of the area's legendary seafood restaurants -- Brunings', Jaeger's or Sid-Mar's -- for fresh shrimp, crawfish or crabs -- and the more adventurous would use the marina to launch a boat onto Lake Pontchartrain. For thousands of others, though, the lakefront meant only one thing: a chance to play beach volleyball at Coconut Beach/Mickey Retif Playground.

Nowadays, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Boh Brothers Construction Company, the contractor hired by the Corps, are using most of the area that was home to Coconut Beach. They are erecting the temporary floodgates, which will stand between the 17th Street Canal and Lake Pontchartrain. While the Corps is attempting to protect the city from future storm surges, Coconut Beach owner Mike Drury and manager Bruce White are doing their best to preserve beach volleyball in New Orleans.

It's hard to say how successful the Corps has been at its task, but based on the crowds of players returning to Coconut Beach, it's safe to say Drury and White are succeeding at theirs. For the first summer season of beach volleyball post-Katrina, 244 teams with more than 3,000 players bumped, set and spiked on Coconut Beach's six nets, down from 17 nets pre-Katrina. Last week, Coconut Beach began holding clinics to teach players volleyball techniques. Even White, who many consider the high priest of beach volleyball in New Orleans, has been surprised by the turnout for the season.

"I'm shocked," he says. "I didn't think I'd have this many."

Those who know Drury and White likely wouldn't be too stunned to hear of these kinds of attendance numbers. The two men have made believers and players out of thousands of people over the past 18 years they've worked together. In 1988, White approached Drury with an idea for constructing beach volleyball courts near Drury's Sportsmen's Paradise bar/restaurant. White thought the courts could be successful, and he recognized Drury as someone who could get things done.

Witnessing the decline of the playground next door to Sportsmen's Paradise, Drury began cutting the grass and making some improvements to the baseball diamonds. Since he was paying for it all himself, he contacted the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) to see if he could be reimbursed. NORD explained that there was no money for playground upkeep, but said it was willing to enter into a cooperative endeavor with Drury. The terms of the endeavor were basic: Drury would be considered the playground director and make any decisions regarding recreational uses of the playground; he would continue to finance the upkeep and he would pay the city to lease the playground property. Drury wanted kids and families to use the playground, plus keeping the area safe and well manicured was advantageous for his business, so he accepted the terms.

When White came to Drury with his proposal, he readily agreed, and the cooperative endeavor became a successful partnership between the city and a private business. The complex started with five nets, which eventually grew to 17, and the competitive beach volleyball leagues that Bruce White organized packed Mickey Retif Playground four nights a week. On other nights, the play spot was open for pickup games.

The entry fees for teams in the leagues eventually generated enough money to pay for White's league management, referees, prizes and maintenance of the playground, plus a percentage of the money went directly to NORD. Drury says the city collected between $50,000 and $70,000 annually from the entry fees while never investing any tax dollars into the facility. If the playground needed repairs beyond revenues the leagues brought in, Drury paid for it out of his own pocket.

Ed Mazoue, a real estate administrator for the city's Division of Real Estate Records, confirms that NORD received money directly from league fees and also benefitted from Drury's commitment to the facility.

"If there was a tropical storm and it washed away some of the beach, Mike Drury would have to fill it in with sand," explains Mazoue. "He put in all the electricity -- the lights for the courts -- and all of the sand at no expense to the city."

The city wasn't the only beneficiary. A number of organizations -- Children's Hospital, March of Dimes, Leukemia Society and "Slamming Jam," a Catholic high school tournament that raises money for different archdiocese charities including NORD -- held charity volleyball tournaments at Coconut Beach. Over the years, Drury estimates the site has raised $1,000,000 for charities.

Following the storm, White returned in early September to survey the area and see what could be done to rebuild the complex. He even set up a volleyball net to let people know that Coconut Beach would return. At a levee board meeting in January, he found out there were other plans for the playground.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was commandeering the land as a staging area for the building of floodgates. In the beginning, White says he wanted to cooperate as much as he could.

"Look, we know [floodgate construction] is a little more important than volleyball," White says. "All we ever asked them is whatever part of the playground you're not using, give it back to us."

By April, Drury and White were ready to get back into business, and the Corps still had not used any of the land. At the end of that month, however, Boh Brothers began moving equipment onto the land. Still, very little of the actual playground is being used as a staging area. Boh built a small road leading to the where temporary gates will be constructed and there is some equipment in the back of the area, but most of the former playground is open space.

Fred Young, project manager for the Corps' levee reconstruction program, defends the decision, saying the playground provides the easiest access to the construction project and that the Corps has to retain access to the playground in case crews require more staging space. Young says the Corps doesn't plan to take the land where the six nets currently are located, and he understand frustration felt by players, Drury and White.

"They've done a lot," he says. "They produce more money than anyone has for NORD. There's a tinge of regret, but there's necessity here."

In order for Drury to reopen Coconut Beach, he had to use his own city-leased property located next to the playground. He cleared debris off the playground's former parking lot and brought in sand for the six nets. Combined with a new bar and concession stand, Drury believes the project has cost him about $300,000. He feels it's worth it, although he would like to see the Corps return some of the unused land.

The Regional Planning Commission recently unveiled the West End Redevelopment Project, which includes Coconut Beach, although it will be moved to a different spot. The District Five Neighborhood Recovery Commission has adopted the redevelopment project as part of its recovery plan, and Councilwoman Shelley Midura endorses it.

Mike Drury believes that as the city rebuilds, it is important that there are safe places to play as well as to work; he says Coconut Beach is more than just a playground. "The amount of families and kids that came here was amazing. Where else are you going to find a beach in New Orleans?"

(PLEASE BOX THIS SECTION) 40 Under 40 Nominations As Gambit Weekly prepares its annual "40 Under 40" issue honoring individuals who have had a positive impact on the New Orleans area, we turn for suggestions to our greatest asset: our readers. Nominate the teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, innovators, activists and citizens you think deserve recognition for changing the metropolitan area for the better.

Nominees must be 39 years old or younger, live in the New Orleans area and be worthy of the honor. In a letter, tell us about your nominee's background, accomplishments and future plans, and be sure to include their exact birth date, your daytime telephone number and any additional information that might be useful to our selection committee. Elected officials are not eligible.

Deadline for nominations is Oct. 6. Winners will be announced in our Nov. 7 issue. Send nominations to 40 Under 40, c/o Gambit Weekly, Attn: Kandace Graves, 3923 Bienville St., New Orleans, LA 70119. You also can fax nominations to 483-3116 or email No telephone nominations, please.

click to enlarge Behind court one at Coconut Beach is a cordoned-off - section of Mickey Retif Playground, now being used by - the Corps of Engineers as a staging area for vehicles and - equipment being used to erect floodgates on the 17th - Street Canal.
  • Behind court one at Coconut Beach is a cordoned-off section of Mickey Retif Playground, now being used by the Corps of Engineers as a staging area for vehicles and equipment being used to erect floodgates on the 17th Street Canal.
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