One of the ironies surrounding New Orleans City Park is that the two greatest renaissance periods of the park have followed two of the greatest disasters in the nation’s history, says Bob Becker, the park’s chief executive officer. The first massive transformation came in the 1930s, following the Great Depression. The second—still unfolding—follows Hurricane Katrina.

“There’s nothing normal about this,” Becker muses, standing alongside the park’s lagoon, lush with growth three weeks before the hurricane’s eighth anniversary. “There hasn’t been a normal day in eight years.”

Becker, who was honored as the UNO College of Liberal Arts 2012 Distinguished Alumnus, took the helm of City Park in 2001. In the same way that many New Orleanians now frame their life stories, the 42-year resident divides his tenure at City Park into two periods—life before the storm and life afterward.

Bob Becker

The park faced difficult financial circumstances when he arrived in 2001, says Becker, a former city planning director and managing director of Audubon Park and Zoo. Though the 1,300-acre park was self-sustaining by definition, revenues did not provide enough operating funds to properly maintain its sprawling grounds, gardens, wildlife and massive recreation facilities.

For four years, Becker and his staff worked to tell the park’s story, strenuously aiming to round up support from legislators, civic groups, corporations and residents. By March 2005, their efforts—which included resident surveys, community outreach and focus groups—had resulted in an ambitious master plan for modernizing the park.

The plan called for raising $115 million in support and determining new ways to increase operating revenue. A target date of May 2018 tied plan completion to the city’s 300th anniversary. As park supporters learned of the vision, fundraising plans gained swift momentum.

Three months later, Hurricane Katrina hit town and the failure of federal levees led to catastrophic flooding throughout 80 percent of the city.

A Devastating Blow

The park was, Becker’s words, “annihilated.”  The last area of the city to be pumped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was two square miles of parkland that lay beneath 18 inches to 8 feet of water for nearly one month.

“My first reaction—our first reaction—was: It will be 25 years before this park can recover,” Becker says as he recalls, in spine-chilling detail, his first view of the park in early September. “Thousands of trees killed. All of the grounds were destroyed. The buildings were all ruined. We had virtually no money. We had virtually no staff to take care of it.”

With no way to generate revenue, the park laid off 90 percent of its 150-member staff. A bare bones operation of 23 core employees worked for weeks out of their cars—no fax, no phone, no Internet, virtually no contact with the outside world.

Some slept in their vehicles, rising at dawn to get back to work.  Mild relief came with the arrival of a FEMA trailer they repurposed as an office.  In a bizarre twist of fate, the park soon housed thousands of contract workers—and still had no help.

“Every single building we had was destroyed or damaged, heavily damaged,” Becker recalls. “Every tool, every piece of equipment, everything we had was destroyed, down to the rake and the shovel. We got back and…We didn’t have any shovels. We had no rakes. We had nothing.”

He did have one thing, he and his team soon came to realize. They had a plan.

A Grand Vision

The park’s board of directors met for the first time following the storm in October 2005 at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which fronts the park’s southeast corner. The imposing structure had no electricity and loomed over miles of debris. Board members climbed the steps as though entering an ancient temple.

“The board and the staff jointly decided that we weren’t just going to repair the damage,” Becker says. “That was not going to be the goal, to just repair what we had here, because the park was in difficult shape before the hurricane. There were a lot of things that were not in good shape. And we had this new master plan,” he says. “So we basically made the commitment. We said: ‘We’re not just going to take somebody’s money and repair. We’re going to implement the master plan. We’re going to make it better than it was before. We’re going to build a world-class park.’”

History was behind them, says Becker, who holds a doctorate in urban studies from UNO and serves as an adjunct
professor in the University’s Planning and
Urban Studies Department. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s,
New Orleans City Park had a master plan in place—and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration and myriad relief programs, City Park was one of the state’s first entities to receive support.

The park’s fundamental infrastructure was a result of a national disaster, the CEO says. The WPA built bridges,
installed drainage, ran water lines and built roads. The nation’s greatest disaster paved the way for a grand park that soon and long served as the city’s pride and joy.

Road to Recovery

Park board and staff quickly developed a four point recovery plan:

1.) Clean the park.

2.) Try to open revenue-generating facilities as swiftly as possible.

3.) Use the master plan as a guide for redevelopment.

4.) Embark on an aggressive fundraising effort.

Two events propelled them forward. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) charged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with cleaning the park and removing debris from nearby roads. With help from a local trust, the Azby Foundation, staff restored the park’s lush botanical gardens. Using rented amusement park rides, they reopened City Park for an age-old tradition, Celebration in the Oaks, in December 2005.

“A herculean task,” Becker says. “…One of the most inspiring moments ever, because in December 2005, New Orleans was pretty much a ruined city.”

Residents celebrated at the open-air Christmas light festival with their children for 19 days, generating more than $250,000 in revenues to help keep the park going.

By 2007, the park had reopened its revenue-generating driving range and amusement park. Still, times remained desperate, Becker says. State and federal legislators came to the rescue, adding New Orleans City Park to the general fund for a critical three years—and levying a tax which allocates to the park 30 percent of all slot machine revenues from the New Orleans Fair Grounds. The funds helped the park rebuild facilities, provide matching grants and pay for expenses not covered by FEMA.

Sweeping Scenery, Sweeping Transformations

Over the last eight years, the park has seen dramatic and sweeping transformations: brand-new festival grounds, a new tennis complex, restoration of the 100-year-old carousel, the planting of 5,000 trees, the reopening of the park’s famed Storyland, a new miniature golf course deemed the nation’s finest, world-class landscapes and a new-and-improved park center surrounding the park’s Big Lake, among others. Coming soon are a long-awaited PGA-caliber championship golf course and a $6 million water park meant to rival Blue Bayou in
Baton Rouge.

His staff enjoys two mottoes, Becker says: “Every great city needs a great park.” And: “To be the best, you have to be better than the rest.”

Some days, he says, while roaming the park, he remembers city residents who more than 100 years ago promenaded down park pathways dressed in Sunday finery and danced to big bands at the century-old white-columned Peristyle.

Others, he recalls the grim days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, when he looked forward to his hourly shift on a lawnmower and the first signs of incremental change.

While observers have compared future plans to New York’s Central Park or
San Diego’s Balboa Park, all has not come easily. The park’s 2005 master plan called for $115 million in fundraising, says Becker. The hurricane brought a direct hit of $43 million in damages, upping the ante to $150 million needed if he is to turn over to citizens a world-class park by 2018.

“The hurricane was a setback…because we had so much damage to repair,” Becker says. “But it was also a catalyst. As a result of the hurricane, we have had a lot of help: philanthropy, foundations, corporate giving, giving from high
net-worth people.”

The storm also galvanized the help of some 40,000 volunteers.

Today, City Park has raised $105 million, including $27 million from private funds, spent a large chunk of that and is spending still, says Becker. The goal is to raise another $45 million in the next four years.

“We’re on our way. We know how to get it. We have a plan,” he says. “Our hope is that we finish raising the money, implement the master plan and turn over a world-class park,” he says, with a pause. “The biggest thing would be to put the park on an extremely sound financial footing for a long distance into the future.”

2012 distinguished alumnus, Bob Becker, spearheads renaissance of New Orleans City Park.New Orleans City Park boasts the world’s largest stand of mature live oaks. The 750-year-old Anseman Oak stands 60 feet high and has a 120-foot canopy. UNO employee Ines Sigel is a  frequent visitor.Photography courtesy of New Orleans City Park ArchivesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the AgesImages of City Park through the Ages

Planning for the Future

Depending on a tax based on slot machines at a racetrack for base operating support is “not where we need to be,” says Becker. To have a secure financial future, the park needs another source of public revenue, whether that’s a sales tax, a property tax, a return to the general fund or other means.

While most American city parks receive 80 percent of operating revenue from taxes and 20 percent from money raised on the grounds, at New Orleans City Park, the situation is the reverse.

“We raise 85 percent of our revenue and we have 15 percent that comes from our tax source,” the CEO says. “This is not a good platform. It’s working, because of the taxes rolling in, but if something were to happen to the Fair Grounds, we would lose all that we’ve gained.”

In the works, he says, is an appeal to legislators.

“I would hate to think that we’ve gone through this incredible effort and then suddenly find that we don’t have the operating revenue to maintain it,” Becker says, mulling over topographical maps, photos and plans for the future. He smiles. He has a plan.
“We’re on a good trajectory right now. But, there’s more work to be done.” ◆