New Orleans still rebuilding, five years later
Robert Becker loves to tell the story of the day City Park’s practice range first opened after Hurricane Katrina. Becker, City Park’s CEO, says it’s the perfect example of the resilience shown by residents of this city.
It was March 2006, seven months after Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Becker and his staff hung a sign on a fence announcing that the range had reopened.
“Almost immediately, people started to show up,” Becker said. “They were so thankful that something was open.”
City Park employees operated out of a tent. They didn’t have a cash register, so buckets cost $10, regardless of size. When they ran out of balls, Becker pulled out a bullhorn and asked his customers to stop swinging. The range’s picker had been damaged in Katrina, but there were no complaints as everyone headed onto the range to shag balls.
“The length people will go to play golf,” said Becker, still astonished.
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That dedication is on display again during a frigid, windy weekday earlier this year. There are 15 people hitting golf balls on the double-decker range. During the height of post-Katrina flooding,
you could have sat on the top level and dangled your feet in the floodwaters. It’s a wide range of people working on their games, an illustration of City Park’s eclectic patronage. Players in sweatshirts and jeans wielding knockoffs are hitting off mats next to players with top-of-the-line clubs.
“At City Park, you’d have a guy out there with a $1,000 suit hitting range balls, and next to him was a cab driver,” said James Leitz, the head pro at Pinewood Country Club in nearby Slidell. “And they’d meet on the first tee and they’d play. And that was New Orleans golf.”
For all of its acclaim as a tourist hotbed, New Orleans never was a golf destination. But as Leitz recalls, the sport endured in its own unique way and provided a metaphorical thread that linked New Orleans residents – for all their many differences – together.
As the PGA Tour rolls into town for the Zurich Classic, New Orleans is facing the fifth anniversary of Katrina’s wrath. Many people here are earnestly working to rebuild their community. But much work remains, and the challenges are daunting.
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There are still parts of town that look like they haven’t been touched since the day the storm hit. New Orleans has more than 60,000 blighted residences (29 percent), a higher percentage than even downtrodden Detroit. The devastation has led to an exodus: New Orleans had 354,850 residents in 2009, down 24 percent from 2004, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
And many of those who remain are struggling: The city’s mean household income is $39,398, about $13,000 less than the national average, according to Census Bureau estimates. Twenty-four percent of city residents live below the poverty level, almost twice the national average. Economically, New Orleans is more Rust Belt than Dixie.
Against this backdrop, however, there is evidence golf will bounce back. Blue-collar residents are playing again on scraggly courses, but don’t care as long as their golf is cheap.
There also are efforts to link golf to the region’s tourism machine and piggyback on the PGA Tour’s annual visit. And then, there are big dreams such as the ones to revive City Park. Such hope casts golf in a significant role to resurrect New Orleans.
Today, it’s hard to find the East Course at City Park. The contours of its bunkers and greens barely are discernible under the weeds.
A rundown starter’s shack stands sentry over the overgrowth. All of its windows are shattered; glass is strewn across the floor. A rusted lamp dangles from the roof. Broken bricks surround the place. The shed served the East and West courses at City Park, but neither has opened since Katrina. The park used to have four courses, but the North is the only one still in play. The South Course closed before Katrina hit.
“When I drive by City Park and see that starter’s stand . . . ” said Leitz, his voice trailing off. “I know the relationships that were started there, and now it’s just desolate. It’s painful.”
But there’s a plan under way to rebuild the East Course, and if it works, it’ll do much more than bring people together to play a game.
Soon after Katrina, Charlie Yates Jr., a noted Atlanta philanthropist and an executive vice president for Zurich Financial Services, title sponsor of New Orleans’ PGA Tour stop, placed a call that crystallized the vision. On the other end, Mike Rodrigue, a former tournament chair of the Zurich, answered.
“He wanted to know how we were doing with the recovery,” Rodrigue recalled. “He brought up East Lake.”
The famed golf club in Atlanta (where a course is named after Charlie Yates Sr., a former East Lake president who won the 1938 British Amateur) has been heralded because its restoration served as the centerpiece of an entire neighborhood revival. A public/private partnership with the Atlanta Housing Authority rebuilt a blighted community by adding mixed-income residences,
a charter school and a YMCA.
If the model worked there, why wouldn’t it work in New Orleans? Rodrigue was part of a group that embarked on a scouting expedition.
“I knew of East Lake only as the golf course,” he said. “It wasn’t until we went after the storm that I saw what it really meant. This is so much bigger than golf.”
Rodrigue now sits on the board of directors of the Bayou District Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to spearhead neighborhood redevelopment in New Orleans.
Its target? The St. Bernard Public Housing Development, one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, which had become uninhabitable from Katrina’s damage.
The Bayou District Foundation’s makeover calls for two schools, a health-care clinic, a YMCA and a commercial component that will feature a grocery store and 900 mixed-income housing units.
The East Course will be transformed into a 7,500-yard, Rees Jones design stout enough to host PGA Tour events. The foundation expects the facility to generate enough revenue to support charitable projects, including education and recreational opportunities for residents, plus junior golf programs at City Park.
The choice to build a “championship” layout has met some resistance, both from open-space advocates who’ve grown accustomed to having the run of the overgrown course, and from critics who say such a premium course exceeds the needs and affordability of local golfers.
But Rodrigue is steadfast in his support.
“It’s going to be transformed into a real city asset,” he said.
City Park’s resurgence holds promise, but it certainly doesn’t reflect everyday golf in New Orleans. That’s a completely different picture.
The New Orleans metropolitan area has lost 108 holes of golf since Katrina. Even with the reduction, “no one is complaining about too many rounds,” said longtime area club pro Jimmy Headrick.
Headrick says the metropolitan area has witnessed a drop in rounds of 10 percent to 20 percent, and others in the local golf community estimate play within the city has fallen even more – as much as 40 percent. Population loss and the recession explain the declines.
Among the golf that remains – 26 courses – are a few high-end options, notably the former and current sites of the Zurich Classic, English Turn and TPC Louisiana, respectively, as well as two private clubs, New Orleans Country Club and Metairie. But for the most part, local golf is about quantity over quality.
The city’s Parks & Parkways Department runs two courses: Joseph Bartholomew, which is undergoing repairs because of hurricane damage, and Brechtel Park.
If Brechtel’s greens aren’t the worst in the country, they’re close. Katrina is partly to blame; the course has operated without an irrigation system since the storm. The greens are so sandy that footsteps appear on them.
But as wretched as the conditions might be, 70-year-old Arthur Schmitt and his friends still play there once a week, with few complaints.
“You can’t beat the price,” he said of the sub-$10 green fees.
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Brechtel likely will be renovated after Bartholomew’s reopening, scheduled for later this year. The latter is named after the late Joseph Bartholomew, the nation’s first black golf-course architect. The course is in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood, which was developed during post-World War II segregation as a black subdivision. Bartholomew’s mission, according to a news release announcing federal money awarded for its rebuilding, is to provide “affordable recreational activities to low- and moderate-income residents.”
That means inexpensive green fees take priority over improved conditioning.
“We need to provide a service,” said Ann E. MacDonald, director of the city’s Department of Parks and Parkways. “This is, at the end of the day, a municipal golf course.”
But Kelly Gibson, a former PGA Tour player who is consulting on the Bartholomew project, insists affordable golf and quality golf don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He says the conditions of local public courses are “unacceptable.”
The last PGA Tour player to come out of New Orleans, Gibson is pushing for higher standards not only for public golf, but for his community.
After Katrina he started a charity, Feed the Relief, which originally provided support to front-line first responders
to the storm and now seeks to enrich the lives of children through athletics. Gibson also serves on the board of the First Tee of New Orleans and runs the Kelly Gibson Junior Tour.
“The one thing we’ve always lacked here in New Orleans is well-maintained golf courses,” Gibson said. “We have to have the people of New Orleans’ expectations go up, and hold the people in the golf industry more accountable.”
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Gibson and other area pros hope the local golf industry, especially with City Park and other renovated facilities, can add to New Orleans tourism. The city’s lifeblood already has rebounded strongly, in part because areas such as the French Quarter went mostly unscathed during Katrina. In 2004, New Orleans attracted a record 10.1 million visitors. That figure plummeted to 3.7 million in 2006 but climbed to 7.6 million just two years later.
“We provide hospitality like no other city,” Gibson said. “We never capitalized on the golf market.”
He has high hopes for Bartholomew and thinks City Park, just a short drive from downtown, could lure vacationers to spend a day playing golf. Lakewood, another former site of New Orleans’ PGA Tour stop, also has undergone recent renovations, and is the centerpiece of what is slated to become New Orleans’ first golf resort.
And it only seems logical to tap into the Tour’s Zurich Classic for more visibility. The tournament, which extended its sponsorship deal with Zurich through 2014, already has made significant contributions. So, too, have Tour players. 24 collectively donated nearly $250,000 to various relief efforts. And that’s not including $500,000 from Phil Mickelson and $1.5 million from the David Toms Foundation.
But even with such generosity, much in New Orleans remains broken. Headrick, recipient of the 2008 PGA Junior Golf Leader Award, knows first-hand the anguish Katrina caused.
Headrick was the pro at Eastover, a 36-hole facility that was one of New Orleans’ finest. Katrina swamped Eastover, forcing it to close. In 2006, the owners tried to reopen nine holes, but that effort lasted only eight months. Now, Eastover is overgrown.
“I’m the only guy that’s closed the same course twice, because of that damn storm,” Headrick jokes, an attempt to laugh away the sadness. Then, he shares a dose of reality.
“Don’t think that underneath all the optimism there isn’t pain still there,” Headrick said. “Our lives will always be defined as pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.”