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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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Gambit sought an interview with NORD director Richard but was referred instead to St. Etienne by Landrieu's office because Richard is new to the job. St. Etienne told Gambit nine of the 10 pools on a targeted reopening list are now open, but the Sam Bonart pool is not on that list. "There's plenty of others that need to be totally redone," he says. "I can't say [when they'll be reopened], because they're probably on the capital projects list, and there's 650 capital projects that are at varying stages of development."

  District D Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, whose district includes Gentilly and part of eastern New Orleans, is frustrated. She says many of the playgrounds in her district were used by FEMA to house trailers and that, despite having promised to bring the sites back after leaving, FEMA never delivered. "The problem is, here we are five years after Katrina," she says. "And we're still arguing over work orders."

  NORD estimates having served 4,400 youth so far in 2010, according to a status report delivered at the Youth Recreation Committee meeting. Council president Arnie Fielkow estimates there are 75,000 to 90,000 age-eligible youth for NORD programs in the city. If his numbers are right, he says, "we aren't serving a very large proportion of those New Orleans youth.

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  "How we can be almost five years from Katrina and not have those playgrounds up is a shame on a lot of people," Fielkow said at the Youth Recreation Committee meeting. "And it's shame on all of us up here."

  In comparison to other parts of the city, parks in the Uptown neighborhood were well attended, well tended, and appeared safe. On the day of Gambit's visit, investment banker John Callaghan brought his wife and two kids to Danneel Park on St. Charles Avenue and Octavia Street. He says he's frustrated by the slow pace at which the park came back after Katrina.

  "People tried to raise the funds privately to repair it," he says. "And the city was very obstructionist. They said the money had to go to into a general fund for parks across the city. So this was done by the people — 500 people came out here last summer." (A "Friends of Danneel Park" website offers donors the chance to be a $50 supporter of the park, or join the "Platinum Circle" by donating $5,000.)

  "Different parts of town have different levels of booster activity," St. Etienne, says when asked about the disparities.

  Parks advocate Babs Johnson lives opposite the Lyons Center in the Irish Channel. She got donations from the Allstate Foundation to rebuild that playground after Katrina but is furious that the Lyons recreation building remains closed after five years. Johnson says she often drives out to other NORD sites across the city and calls the agency to report problems. "The issue for me is, why should I, an advocate, have to be telling NORD about these issues, instead of them figuring out what they need to do for themselves?" Johnson asks.

  And why can't NORD at least cut the grass at its parks in the 9th Ward?

  The answer is simple: money. Or rather, lack of money — which forces some tough decisions on NORD and city officials.

  "You have to manage how your resources are deployed, and I'm not familiar with the specifics of the properties you looked at in the 9th Ward," St. Etienne says. "But if none of the physical plant is usable, then why keep the grass trimmed on a regular basis, as opposed to a less frequent basis, if there's no reason for the kids to go there? If this park is on a list of properties to be totally redone, then you sort of land bank it until it's ready to be redone."

  The dilapidation raises another worry for the city: that private contributions will dry up if NORD can't manage its facilities better. At the recent Youth Recreation Committee meeting, Fielkow referred to a letter from Nina Packer, executive director of the 1 Family Foundation.

  "This is a funder who came in with a $200,000 grant two years ago dealing with Harrell Park, both for the basketball courts and also for the facility itself," Fielkow says. "They're very concerned. They thought the facility would be open a year ago, and this is the Lil' Wayne Foundation. We don't want to lose not only this funder, but we don't want to serve as a precedent for losing other grant money for the whole city."

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  "Our intention in granting these funds at the time that we did was to expedite the reopening of Harrell Park, and to make sure that the young people in that community had access to facilities for out-of-school programming in their own neighborhood," Packer wrote in the letter.

  "We are disappointed that the project that we funded nearly two years ago has not yet been completed."

  "The money's still there," St. Etienne says of Harrell Park. "We spent $50,000 on renovating the basketball courts. The other $150,000 is sitting in escrow, waiting for the capital projects team to approve it."

"I think NORD is a very broken, dysfunctional system right now," Fielkow says. "It's woefully dysfunctional both in terms of funding and a governance structure, which over recent years has led to a leadership void and a politicization of the process."

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